Daddy's Little Girl


BY:  Kenda



Daddy’s Little Girl is a sequel to, The Sixties: Alive and Well.  The Sixties: Alive and Well can be found under California Dreamin’ in the Simon and Simon Library.



March through July of 1988



I suppose I should have realized something was amiss that Tuesday in late March when I hung up the phone after talking with Anita.  No one could have been more surprised than I was when my former girlfriend, and by former I mean almost twenty-one years former, contacted me out of the blue.  Granted, her daughter Megan had been in San Diego the previous August, and had hired Rick and myself to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Anita's brother back in 1967.   In the week it took us to solve the crime, I was bathed in both pleasant nostalgia and painful reality.  The nostalgia being the warm memories brought forth as I recalled that summer of ‘67.  I've always thought of it as the last summer of my youth and innocence.  Rick hadn't left for Vietnam yet, I hadn't started college yet, and I was madly in love with a redheaded ball of fire named Anita Cooper.  It was a summer of long, lazy days on the beach and long, lazy nights parked under the stars in my old Woody station wagon with Anita at my side. 


     It was also a summer of tragedy, broken hearts, and hard goodbyes.  Anita's brother Larry died that August, sending her into a tailspin of inconsolable grief.  Two weeks later Anita left without saying a word to anyone.  Not even me.  No goodbyes, no “I love you,” not even just a, “See ya’ around some time, A.J.”   A week after that Mom and I saw Rick off to boot camp.  In November he shipped out to Nam.


     Our investigation into Larry's death uncovered several interesting facts.   Like Anita had recently begun to suspect, her brother had been murdered.  Evidently Larry discovered his younger sister had gotten pregnant by the boy she was dating prior to me.  She'd had an abortion that winter of 1967, effectively eliminating the evidence of their indiscretions, so to speak, but that meant nothing to Larry when he furiously confronted Carl that August about what he knew.   A fight ensued between the two, which left Larry dead from a broken skull and massive internal bleeding.           


     Needless to say, a lot of things were uncovered I never would have imagined to be true without evidence to back them up.  The most shocking being Anita's abortion.  She'd led me to believe that she, like myself, was a virgin the first time we slept together.  I suppose had I been more experienced I would have known that wasn't true.   I would have realized she was far too worldly about a number of things for our initial encounter to have been her first time.  But I was young and trusting, and long after our relationship ended and I went on to have a number of other serious relationships with members of the opposite sex, I never looked back and gave that first experience much thought one way or another.


     Therefore Megan's visit brought with it a lot of good memories, a few sad ones, as well as a number of startling revelations.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed getting to know her that week.  She was a beautiful, kindhearted girl, and more than once I found myself thinking how lucky her parents were.  Anyone would have been proud to have her for a daughter.  I was also pleased to hear that after a number of troubling years, Anita had turned her life around and was happily married.  When I told Megan that I had always wanted the best for her mother, I sincerely meant it.  I was happy to hear things had turned out well for Anita.  Obviously Megan was living proof of that.


     When Megan left to go home she told me that someday soon she and her mother would come back to San Diego to visit me.  While I thought that was a nice thing for her to say, I never expected such an event to materialize.  After all, Anita and I hadn't seen each other in twenty years, and she'd been happily married for almost that long.  What reason would she and her daughter have to come back and visit me?


     So, quite frankly, within a day or two after Megan departed I forgot all about her promise.  Which was why I almost fell out of my chair that day in the office when I picked up the ringing telephone and heard a sunny voice on the other end say,  "A.J.?  Hi.  It's Anita."


     We talked, and laughed, and reminisced for forty-five minutes while catching up on one another's lives.  When the conversation began to wind down    she said, "A.J., Megan and I are flying down to San Diego this Friday evening and will be staying for a few days.  I need to finalize some things regarding the sale of Mom and Dad's house.  I'd really love to see you."


     I was eager to see her, as well.  By the time we hung up we had made arrangements for Anita and Megan to come to my house at ten o'clock on that Saturday morning. 


     I looked over at Rick with a big grin on my face.  "That was Anita," I announced, as though he hadn't figured that out by now.  "She and Megan are coming for a visit at the end of the week.  She wants us to spend some time together.  Isn't that great?"


     If I hadn't been so caught up in the excitement of seeing an old friend I would have immediately noticed Rick's demeanor.  He was suddenly quiet and uncomfortable, and began shifting restlessly in his chair. 


     "Uh...yeah, A.J., that's great.  Just great.  I'm sure you guys will have a...a good time."


     I relaxed against my chair and looked off into the distance as my mind took me back over twenty years.  "I can't wait to see her.  I mean, I know she's married and everything...but just to see her again will be neat."


     Rick stood and walked over to snare his coat off the rack.  I watched as he shouldered into it. 


     "Where are you going?"


     "I...uh...I've got some errands to run."


     "What kind of errands?"


     "Oh...just this and that.  I won't be back today.  It's already three-thirty.  I'll see ya’ tomorrow."


     I shrugged while watching my brother depart.  "Sure.  Whatever you say.  See you tomorrow."


     I did notice that Rick was quiet over the course of the next couple of days, but when I asked him what was wrong he'd say nothing and quickly change the subject.  Considering how many hours a week we're together, we've learned the importance of respecting one another's privacy.  Therefore, I accepted what he said and left him alone.  I half guessed Rick was tired because he'd spent one too many a recent night partying with Carlos but didn't want to confess that particular sin to me.


     I was up early that Saturday morning in anticipation of Anita's arrival.  I decided to prepare a meal and invite her and Megan for lunch.  As the time of their arrival neared the kitchen was filled with the spicy scents of cinnamon, nutmeg and fresh damp apples.  The cobbler cooled on the counter top, while the Chicken Kiev slowly baked in the oven.  The room had just been returned to its usual impeccable state when the bell clanged.


     I'd have known her anywhere.  She wore a pair of pleated beige dress slacks and a cream colored sweater with various shades of brown running through it that complimented her complexion and eyes.


     "Anita," I smiled as I held my arms out to her.   "You look wonderful.  You haven't changed a bit."


     We both laughed at my words.  Of course she'd changed.  She now wore that beautiful copper colored hair in a short wedge.  The last time I'd seen her it had hung to her waist.  And naturally there was a maturity about her face and body that spoke of a grown woman, and not a seventeen-year-old girl.  But she was still as tiny and pretty as I remembered her being, and her blue eyes still danced with mischief. 


     As we hugged Anita told me I hadn't changed either, though I'm sure when she stopped seeing me through rose-colored glasses she noticed I had.  My hair no longer hung in my eyes or below my collar, nor was it as white as it used to be from hours in the sun.  Though I'm not overweight, my waistline is thicker than it was twenty years ago, as are my chest and shoulders.  And just like her, I was certain time had matured my facial features, making the bones sharper and more angular. 


     "Come in, come in," I urged as I lightly laid a hand on her back.   I stuck my head out the open door.  "Where's Megan?"

     "She...she didn't come with me this morning.  I wanted to speak with you alone for a little while, A.J.  When we're through talking I'll call her."


     I didn't think anything of that explanation.  I could understand why a seventeen-year-old girl didn't want to be subjected to listening to her mother reminisce about days gone by with an old boyfriend.


     I led Anita over to the kitchen table and pulled out a chair for her.


     She looked around the room, as though trying to spy the source of the heady aromas.  "Mmmm, something smells good."

     I smiled and took a seat next to her.      "I have lunch in the oven for us.  I hope you can stay.  There's more than enough for Megan as well, if she'd like to join us."


     Anita sat her petite brown leather purse off to one side.  "I'm sure she'd like that.  Thank you."


     I realized I was being remiss in my duties as host and began to rise.  "Can I get you anything?  Coffee?  A soda?"


     "No, no," she shook her head.  She reached out and laid her hand on my bare arm.  "Please, A.J.  Sit down."


     I reseated myself and gave her a puzzled smile.  I couldn't understand why she suddenly looked so serious...and so unnerved. She reached over and took one of my hands in both of hers. 


     Anita’s mouth opened as if she was going to speak, and after three false starts she finally began.  "A.J...A.J., I have something to tell you that's going to be very hard for you to hear."


     Based on the look of uncertainty I saw on her face, I came to my own conclusion.  Gently I said,  "Anita...if you're going to tell me that you and Carl...that you were pregnant with his child during the winter of '67 and had an abortion, I already know.  Rick and I uncovered that fact in our investigation.  But don't worry, I didn't tell Megan.  I didn't feel it was my place to."


     One of her hands came up to softly stroke over the side of my face.  "Oh, A.J., you're so sweet.  As sweet and thoughtful as I remember you being.  But no, that's not what I wanted to tell you."

     Her hand returned to clasp mine.  "A.J...A.J., Megan wasn't born Megan Jennings.  She was born Megan Cooper."


     Although I didn't understand the implications of what she was trying to tell me, I was certainly aware Cooper was Anita's maiden name.




     She swallowed hard.  "She was born Megan Andrea Cooper, her middle name being in honor of a dear friend of mine.  That friend is you, A.J."


     I gave her a small smile of surprise.  "Me?"


     "Yes, you.  Andrea was not only in honor of you as a dear friend, but as well in honor of the fact that're Megan's father."


     My body slowly sagged against the back of my chair like a child's blow-up beach toy that's had the air let out of it. 




     Her eyes locked with mine.  "You're Megan's father, A.J."


     "But...but...she's only seventeen.  It's not possible."


     She shook her head.  "No, A.J.  She's not seventeen.  She'll be twenty years old in three days.  On Tuesday, April 5th."


     Some quick mental arithmetic told me Anita would have gotten pregnant with Megan some time in July of 1967. 


     "But...but you told me you were on the pill," I accused, as though it made any difference now.


     She gave a soft smile that reflected her own foolishness.  "I was.  I didn't lie to you about that.  But I was seventeen years old, and not always as careful as I should have been.  My diligence with the use of birth control was sporadic at best."


     I looked away from her and sputtered, "I just...I just...I just don't understand any of this."


     But I did.  I understood all too well.  At least parts of it.  I didn't even have to insist on having a paternity test taken.  Now that I was aware of Megan's parentage, I was mentally seeing her in a whole new light.  She looked like a feminine version of pictures I'd seen of my father as a young man.  Therefore, I supposed that meant she looked like me as well.  And she looked exactly like pictures I'd seen of Dad's sister, Pat, when she was a teenager.  Aunt Pat is a very attractive woman yet today, but in her youth she was a knockout beauty.  The family joke had always been that Grandpa Simon greeted every one of Aunt Pat's suitors with a sawed-off shotgun and a smile.


     Anita squeezed my hand with both of hers and in so doing returned my attention to her face.  "I know you don't understand, A.J.  But maybe I can help you to."


     She took a deep breath.  "It was a week before Larry died that I missed my period.  Past experience told me I might be pregnant, but nonetheless I did a fairly good job of denying the obvious and pushing the worry to the back of my mind.  Then Larry was killed and two more weeks went by and I still didn't get my period.  I went to a doctor, who within twenty four hours confirmed I was seven weeks pregnant."


     My voice was hard and cold.  I imagine the expression on my face was just as unyielding. “Why didn't you tell me?"   


     Her eyes reflected my inner sorrow.  "Oh, A.J., how could I?  If I had told you, you would have insisted we get married."


     I pulled my hand out of her grip and sat up straight.  "Of course I would have insisted we get married!  What would have been so wrong with that?"


     "A.J., it never would have worked.  We had a wonderful summer together, and I loved you, I really did, but we weren't meant to be husband and wife.  At least not then.  You had so many dreams.  So many many dreams for your future, while I was a flighty, headstrong girl who jumped on the back of whatever wagon happened to be coming my way.  I was no more ready to settle down into married life than you were ready to spend the rest of your days working in some factory somewhere.  Which is exactly what would have happened had we gotten married.  You never would have been able to go to college, A.J.  The financial responsibilities of Megan and myself would have forced you to get a job.  And that's not what I wanted for you.  Not in a million years.  A.J. Simon was going to be somebody, and I was bound and determined that neither me nor my child were going to stand in his way."


     "That wasn't your decision to make, Anita.  It was mine."


     She gave a reluctant nod.  "I can't deny that now.  But twenty years ago I thought I was doing the right thing for both of us.  And for my parents as well.  They were so torn up over Larry's death that I just couldn't tell them I was pregnant.  They would have been so disappointed, and I just couldn't bear the thought of being the one who added to their sorrow.  So for their sake, and yours, and for mine too, I suppose, I left San Diego."


"Megan was born in San Francisco then?"


     "Yes.  Well actually, in a commune north of there.  But not that long after she was born I returned to the city."


     I recalled how I had kept in touch with Anita's parents the first few months after her disappearance.  Her mother had always denied knowing Anita's whereabouts. 


"And your parents?  When did they find out about Megan?"


     "Not until she was six months old.  That's the first time I made contact with them.  I was strung out on heroin and I needed a fix.  I called home for money.   I probably wouldn't have told them about her even then, if it hadn't been that my father said he wouldn't send me money, but rather would send me a bus ticket home.  I started screaming that I had a baby to feed."


     She shook her head in shame.  "Upon hearing that, and hearing Megan crying in the background, Dad agreed to send me the money.   I refused give him my address, though, and made him wire it to a Western Union office on the opposite side of the city from where Megan and I were living.  With the help of a private investigator they finally tracked me down four months later."  Anita gave me a small smile.  "Mom said as soon as she saw Megan she knew you were her father."


     I couldn't believe it.  I had always had a good relationship with Anita's parents.  Granted, they probably weren't too thrilled to find out I had been sleeping with their daughter, but I still couldn't understand what would have made them harbor such a secret from me.  Or at least prevented her old man from coming after me with a double-barreled shotgun.  


"How come your parents never told me?"


     "They were afraid you'd try to obtain custody of Megan, and then take it one step farther and prevent them from ever seeing her."


     "What do you mean?  Why would I have done something like that?"


     It was her turn to lean back in her chair.  Her fingers idly played with the cloth place mat for a moment.  "A.J., I was a drug addict.  Mostly heroin, but LSD as well when I could get it.  I had started smoking pot as far back as when I was dating you."


     That was another piece of news that came as a surprise.  I began to wonder just how naive I had been in my youth.


     "But the hard stuff came after Larry died.  The drugs became my escape from reality, as drugs are for most junkies.  Megan and I were living on welfare in a rat-infested apartment building in a part of San Francisco where no woman had any business being.  I couldn't take care of myself, let alone take care of my child.  Mom and Dad threatened to take her away from me.  Of course I went crazy, screaming and throwing things at them, and even going after my dad with a butcher knife when he moved to pick Megan up off the dirty blanket she was lying on.  I might have sunk lower than low, but I loved that baby.  I loved her with all my heart and soul.  She was such a beautiful baby, A.J.  Her eyes were as big and blue as a china doll's.  Her cheeks were so round and pink they looked like they'd been painted on her.  Her hair was platinum blond, and curled in perfect little ringlets all around her head.  People were always telling me what an adorable little girl she was, and that I should get her into modeling.  When she was a year old I did.  She became one of the most prominent baby models in the Sears Roebuck Catalog, and I'm ashamed to say every penny she earned I spent on drugs.  I used my own daughter to support my habit.  But that's what addicts do.  Use people.  Even their innocent children.  Megan's modeling got us by another year, then things got tight again.  This time Mom and Dad made good on their threat to gain custody.  They hired an attorney in San Francisco and I was visited by a social worker before being subpoenaed to appear in court.  In the end, that was the best thing my parents could have done.  I couldn't let them take her away from me, A.J.  Every time I looked at Megan, I saw you.  She was all I had left of a time that had meant the world to me, the summer of 1967.  You were the first boy who treated me with respect.  You were the first boy who gave me a glimpse of what it was like to be loved because of who I was, as opposed to what I was willing to put out in the back seat of someone's car.


     "So I went off the drugs cold turkey.  It's the hardest thing I've ever done.  But when all the pain and the cravings were over, I knew for the first time in my life I had truly accomplished something.


     "Mom and Dad were so good to me.  If it hadn't been for their help I don't know what I would have done.  They got me into a drug treatment program and put their custody suit on hold.  Mom took me out and bought me a whole new wardrobe.  They helped me find a small apartment in a better part of town.  My folks never had a lot of money leftover after the monthly bills were paid, but somehow Dad scraped up enough to pay three months rent for me.  With my new wardrobe and newly found self-confidence, I went job hunting.  Two weeks later I was hired as a desk clerk at the Fillmore Hotel."


     "The same hotel your husband works for," I said.

     "Yes.  That's where I met him.  He was ten years my senior and worked on their ad campaigns.  Today he's the head of the ad division."


     Although I was as mad as I ever recall being, I had to know the details.  "When did the two of you get married?"


     "In June of 1971.  Megan was three years old. husband, and I started dating about six weeks after we'd met.  Our first few dates involved nothing more than strolling down to a local restaurant and sharing lunch.  I was scared to tell him about Megan.  I figured he'd dump me on the spot.  He kept asking me out to dinner and a movie but I kept refusing him.  Finally one day he laughed and asked me what kind of a secret I had hidden at my apartment that I didn't want him to discover.  Michael was the best thing that had happened to me in a long time, and I knew I was falling in love with him.  I decided I couldn't risk losing him by making him feel I was hiding a part of my life from him.  And I decided it was time I find out what affect, if any, Megan was going to have on our future relationship.  If I got the slightest indication he disapproved of her, or wouldn’t to treat her right, I was going to drop him like a hot potato.


     "When he came by my apartment that night, I had Megan dressed in one of the fancy ruffled dresses she had worn when modeling for Sears.  She was fresh from the bathtub and just as beautiful as she could be in her dress, white tights, and tiny black patent leather shoes.   She was just a little over two years old.  When Michael came in I took Megan by the hand and brought her out of the bedroom.

     "This is my secret," I told him.  “Michael,” I introduced, "this is my daughter, Megan."


     Anita smiled at the memory.  "Michael fell in love with Megan that night, and she with him.  When we left to go out to dinner he insisted that she come with us.  He wouldn't let me leave her with the babysitter I had hired.  She had such a sunny disposition and was a happy, well-behaved child.  I always thought of you, A.J., when people would compliment me on her personality.  I used to say she's just like her father."


     If she thought the flattery was going to appease me she was wrong.  It was twenty years too late for that.  Although I had already guessed the answer to my next question, I asked it anyway. 


"Why does Megan go by Megan Jennings?"


     Anita's eyes momentarily fell to the table.  "Michael legally adopted her a few weeks after her fourth birthday."


     "How could he do that?  I'm her father!"


     "Yes, A.J., you are.  But your name isn't on her birth certificate, and I told the judge I didn't know who Megan’s father was.  Now days things would be different.  It would be harder for such an adoption proceeding to go through.  But sixteen years ago the courts weren't as concerned about the rights of the biological parents, especially the biological father, as they are today."


     I shook my head in disgust and looked away from her. "Lucky me."


     She reached out a tentative hand and made contact with my arm.  "A.J...I'm sorry.  I really am.  But she was already four years old, and you didn't even know she existed."


     My tone was biting and sarcastic as my head whipped around.  "And just whose fault is that, Anita?"


     She readily confessed,  "It's mine, A.J.  I know it's mine, and I'll never deny that fact.  But as I was saying, you didn't know Megan existed, and Megan didn't know you existed.  As far as she was concerned, Michael was her father.  Both Michael and I felt it would be easier on her if that's how we went forward.  And I thought you'd marry one day and have children of your own.  I thought...well, I thought that for those reasons Megan wouldn't be as important to you."

     "How can you say that? How dare you decide whether or not a child of mine is important to me.  Even if I'd married and had ten children, Megan would still be important to me.  Just as important as the others.  But the point is, Anita, I didn't get married, did I?  Or at least I haven't yet.  And I don't have any other children, so your justification of why you and your husband did what you did is pretty damn lame.  And pretty damn pointless as well."


     I could see tears shimmering in her eyes, but I didn't care.  If she was looking to me for sympathy then she was looking at the wrong man.


     "I know, A.J.  I know.  If I could go back and do it all over again, then believe me, I would.  But I can't.  What's done is done.  It's how we go forward from here that matters."

     I wasn't so certain I had any desire to ‘go forward from here,’ as she put it.  "Can you tell me why it took you twenty years to come to me with this news?"


     Anita reached for her purse and pulled out a tissue.  She dabbed at the tears in the corners of her eyes, then absently twisted the tissue into a tight knot.  


"For a number of reasons, I suppose.  As I said, Megan was so young when Michael came into our lives that she doesn't remember him not being with us.  Therefore, it was easy to allow her to believe he was her real father.  And as time passed, Michael and I discovered we were unable to have children of our own.  Megan is all we have.  I remember telling him one time how sorry I was that we'd been unable to conceive.  Do you know what he said to me?"

     Of course I didn't, nor did I really care, so I didn't bother to answer her. 


     "He kissed me and said, ‘Anita, don't ever apologize for that again.  We have Megan.  I love her as much as I could love a child of my own blood.  Whenever we're feeling sorry for ourselves all we need to do is look at Megan to realize how rich we really are.’"


     My voice dripped with venom.  "Congratulations on your wealth.  Thanks to you and your husband, some of us haven't been allowed to share in the spoils."  


     A long uncomfortable silence prevailed.  I had a feeling Anita was no longer thinking of me as sweet and thoughtful.


     Anita finally cleared her throat and resumed her story.  "Michael's the remainder of the reason it's taken me twenty years to come to you.  Like my parents, he was so afraid you'd try to obtain custody of Megan.  He couldn't bear the thought of having her taken from us.  But I promised myself that regardless of my husband's wishes, I would tell Megan who her father really was when she turned eighteen."


     "And did you?"


     "No.  She beat me to it.  When she was fifteen, Megan was home alone one day and started snooping through my closet.  It was there that she discovered her birth certificate and adoption papers.  As well, she found pictures of you from our high school days, and articles about your business Mom had sent me over the years."  Anita smiled.  "My daughter inherited her father's private investigation skills.  In a short amount of time she concluded that Michael wasn't her biological father and that you were."


     "When did she tell you what she knew?"


     "A couple of weeks later when Michael was away on a fishing trip.  She was very angry with me, of course.  And very confused and upset.  It took the two of us a long time to iron things out.  When we were finally back on an even keel I explained to her how much what she knew would hurt Michael.  Megan reluctantly agreed that we would wait until she was eighteen before we'd tell Michael what she knew.  From there I told her it was her decision as to whether or not she would choose to contact you.  Although she was only fifteen, she told me she thought she'd want to do that one day.  But then, shortly before Megan's eighteenth birthday, Michael became very ill.  He grew weak and short of breath, and eventually he didn't even have the strength to get out of bed.  He had contracted a virus that attacked his heart.  His only chance was a transplant."


     I nodded my head.  "Megan mentioned when she was here last summer that he'd just undergone open heart surgery."


     "Yes, he got his new heart in July.  And that's why Megan and I delayed telling Michael that she had discovered he wasn't her biological father.  I talked to his doctor about the situation, and he advised against any stress or upsets until after the transplant had taken place."


     "But he knows now?"


     "Yes. We told him three weeks ago.  You see, A.J., I had no idea my daughter was planning to seek you out when she came to San Diego in August.  If I had known, I would have forbidden it.  But I also understand she wanted to meet her father.  It's only natural for her to be curious as to what type of a man you are.  So she came to your office and hired you to investigate Larry's death.  Her purpose was twofold.   She wanted to help me put Larry's memory to rest, and she wanted to meet you.  Our very determined daughter accomplished both those things, A.J."


     "Yes, she did," I agreed softly.  "But why didn't she tell me who she was while she was here?"


     "Because Michael still didn't know.  His surgery had only been a few weeks earlier, and the doctors were speaking in very guarded terms regarding his prognosis.  Megan wouldn't allow herself to put Michael's health at risk."


     I suddenly realized how difficult this must have all been for Megan.  In many ways she was torn between two men, both of them her father, and her loyalties to them.  "She's a good girl," was all I said.


     "Yes," Anita smiled.  "She is.  Though I almost shot her when she came home and told me what she'd done.  Especially when she told me Rick knew who she was.  I was so afraid he'd tell you, and you'd come tearing up to Hollander with blood in your eye.  Despite your sweet disposition, I well remember your temper."


     I ignored her teasing to question incredulously, "Rick knew?"


     "Yes.  He told Megan he suspected she was your daughter that very first day in the office.  A few days later he had somehow obtained a copy of her birth certificate and then, of course, knew for certain."


     He knew!  That son-of-a-bitch knew and he didn't tell me!


     For the time being I let the issue of Rick drop.  I'd be talking to him personally about this entire situation at a later time.


     My amiable host voice had long ago left me.  "So what exactly is the purpose of this little visit?  If Megan already knows who I am, then I don't see the point."


     Anita looked at me as though she couldn't believe what she was hearing.  "The purpose is so you and Megan can get to know one another.  So the two of you can decide how you want to go forward with your relationship."


     "What relationship?"  I scoffed.  "Megan and I have no relationship, thanks to you.  Thanks to you I missed her first smile, and the skinned knees, and the birthdays, and the school plays..."  by now I was choking back my tears.  "And all the times she might have thrown her arms around me and said, "I love you, Daddy."  I flew from my chair so fast it clattered to the floor.  "Thanks to you I missed out on all those things I would have so much wanted to be a part of!  And now you show up at my house twenty goddamn-years-too-late, and have the audacity to tell me I'm now allowed to have a relationship with my daughter!  Well you can just go to hell, lady!   Go to hell and leave me alone while you're at it!"


     The tears now streaming down her face meant nothing to me.  "A.J..."


     My hand swept out and indicated to the door.  "Just go, Anita.  Go!"


     She grabbed for her purse and brushed by me without another word.  She opened the door and paused before rushing out.  Her tears caused her voice to quiver.   


"We're staying at the Fillmore, A.J.  Room 127.  We'll be here until Wednesday.  I was hoping...I was hoping you could celebrate Megan's birthday with us."


     I issued my final command.  "Get out, Anita."


     I turned my back on her.  I heard the soft click of the door, indicating she'd done as I'd ordered.  I bent down and picked up the chair that was on the floor.  I pitched it upright so violently it marred the wood of the table.  I kicked a cabinet door as I passed through the kitchen, knocking it off one set of hinges and leaving it dangling like a child's loose tooth.


     Five minutes later I was in the garage plummeting my punching bag and crying.     




S&S    S&S     S&S    S&S     S&S    S&S



     My tears had long stopped, but my anger still boiled red hot when I headed over to Rick's later that afternoon. 


     And that's just how I wanted it.


     He was out on the deck of his houseboat dangling a fishing line over the railing, Marlowe at his feet.  I climbed aboard without announcing my presence.   I wasn't trying to muffle my footsteps, so as soon as I rounded the corner he turned and smiled.


     "Hey, A.J."


     I continued toward him, grabbed a fistful of his Hawaiian shirt, and popped him one right on the jaw.  He reeled backwards, but I snared his arm before he could sail overboard.  It wasn't my intention to drown him, though admittedly I was so angry I was sorely tempted.  Marlowe struggled to his arthritic feet and lumbered over to the other side of the boat.  He must have decided he was too old to referee anymore of our fights. 


     Rick righted himself and brought a hand up to gingerly feel his tender jaw.  "What the hell was that for?"


     "You know what it's for, you bastard."

     "I do not!"


     "You don't, huh?  Well then maybe I better prime your memory with my other fist."  I advanced on him, though not with the intention of hitting him. "You knew, Rick.  You knew Megan was my daughter and you didn't tell me."

     He slowly nodded his head.  "That's right, A.J.," he agreed softly.  "I didn't tell you."


     "Why not?"

     "Because I made a promise to that little girl that I wouldn't.  I promised her that I'd allow her and Anita to tell you themselves.  And just like my promises mean something to you, they mean something to your daughter as well."


     He probably knew that would take some of the wind out of my

self-righteous sails.  Promises had always been a sacred thing between us.  Even dating back to childhood, we'd never broken a vow we'd made to one another.


     Rick laid a solicitous hand on my arm, but I jerked away from his touch.  He allowed his hand to drop.  "Come on.  I think we'd better finish this in private."


     For the first time I took note of Rick's neighbors to the north and south.  It was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon and everyone was out on the decks of their boats.  Granted, they were used to overhearing the Simon brothers quarrel now and then, but they'd never witnessed quite the scene they were privy to this day.


     He led the way into his boat.  "You want a beer?"




     He reached in the fridge and pulled out a cold bottle of Budweiser, but didn't open it.  Instead he took a seat at the kitchen table and brought the beer bottle up to rest on his rapidly discoloring jaw.


     I was already feeling guilty about the punch, but was still too angry to apologize for it. 


     Rick indicated to the chair across from him.  "I think you'd better have a seat and talk to me."


     I paced the floor of his small galley.  "I don't want to have a seat.  And I'm not so damn certain I want to talk to you either."


     "Oh.  So you just came over to punch my lights out, huh?"


     I whirled on him and his damn teasing.  "She's my daughter, Rick!  She's my daughter, and it's taken Anita twenty years to see fit to tell me."


     He gave a slow nod of sympathy.  "I know, A.J.  I know.  And I'm sorry."


     “Yeah, yeah.”  I turned my back and waved a hand in dismissal.  "You're sorry.  Anita's sorry.  Hell, everybody's sorry.  Well, I'm sorry too.  Sorry that I never got to hold my newborn daughter in my arms.  Sorry that I never got to teach her to pitch a ball.  Sorry that I didn't get to run along beside her while she learned to ride a bike."  By now there were tears in my voice.  "And just plain sorry that I didn't get to watch her grow up."


     "Nobody can ever give you back those things, A.J.," he said softly.  "I know that, and I hurt for you, kid.  I really do.  But now that you know the truth, you and Megan can begin to build a relationship."


     I turned to face him.  "You and Anita must have read the same book."

     He looked at me with puzzlement.


     "Relationship seems to be the fifty cent word today.  Well I told her, and now I'll tell you, I don't want a relationship.  Megan already has a relationship with a man she refers to as her father.  Why the hell does she need me in her life?"


     "She needs you for a lot of reasons, A.J.  She needs you so she can better understand where it is she came from.   She may have been born a Cooper, and she may have been adopted a Jennings, but the fact of the matter is, she's a Simon, too.  She deserves to know about our side of the family as well."


     "She's spent twenty years not knowing about us.  What difference does it make now?"


     "It makes a lot of difference!   And when you stop feeling sorry for yourself you'll see that."


     I scowled at him.  "Don't patronize me, Rick.  And I'm not feeling sorry for myself."


     "That's how it looks from here."


     "Well maybe if you'd pull that damn beer bottle away from your face you'd see the world a bit more clearly."


     "Actually," he quipped as he held the bottle in front of him and studied the label,  "I usually find I see the world very clearly after a couple of Bud's."


     I shook my head at him and turned for the door.


     "A.J., look, I’m sorry," he said as he sat the beer bottle on the table and pushed it aside.  “For everything.  This is...well, this is one thing I just can't make better for you, and I'm helping in the only way I know how.  I don't want to see you do something that you're gonna regret a few days from now after you've had a chance to calm down."


     I turned around and declared like an insolent child,  "I'm not planning to calm down."        


     Rick ducked his head, but not before I caught his smile.  "You are a stubborn jackass, ya’ know that?"

     "If I'm a stubborn jackass, it's only because my older brother's an obstinate mule."    


     "That your older brother is.  But unlike you, he knows when his obstinacy is only going to cause him further grief."


     "That's my choice to make," I told him firmly.  "Not yours."




     "Drop it, Rick.  The subject is now closed."


     His eyes widened.  "The subject of your daughter is a closed one?"

     My heart constricted with pain.  "Yes.  It is."

     "But, A.J.--"


     "Look, Rick, you've made a number of decisions over the years that I haven't approve of, but I didn't stop you from making them.  This decision is mine to make, and whether or not you approve is neither here nor there."


     "Do you mind if I forge a relationship with my niece?"


     I turned away from him.  "Do what you want.   It makes no difference to me."


     "What does make a difference to you right now, A.J.?"


     I stared out the patio doors at the water lapping gently against the boat.  "Not a hell of a lot, Rick."  I whispered.  "Not a hell of a lot at all."




     I slid the doors open and had one foot on the deck when I turned.  "I've got enough Chicken Kiev and apple cobbler to feed six people.  You might as well come over for dinner tonight if you don't have any plans."


     I think he knew that was my way of apologizing for his bruised jaw.


     "I don't have any plans.  What time's dinner?"


     "Whatever time you show up.  Six is fine, I guess."


     "You got ice cream to go with that cobbler?"


     I couldn't help but smile at my brother's ever-present stomach.  "Yes, I've got ice cream."


     "How about beer?"

     "Not much.  You'd better bring some."


     He picked up the Budweiser bottle and toasted in my direction.  "I got ya’ covered, little brother."

     Sternly I warned him, "But the deal is, the subject of Anita and...and Megan, is not to be brought up.  If it is, you'll find yourself flat on your back in the canal."


     The expression on Rick’s face told me that's exactly what he'd had planned.   I knew his thoughts were something along the lines of, I'll see to it that A.J. fills his stomach with warm food and then we'll toss in some alcohol just to mellow him out a bit.  Then I'll bring up this Anita thing, and pretty soon he'll get to feelin' bad for his hasty decision and start cryin' in his beer.  The next thing you know, he'll be headin' over to the Fillmore to see Megan.


     Well I hated to tell him this, but that wasn't going to happen.  My decision hadn't been a hasty one and Megan didn't need a father.


     Our gazes locked and held long enough for him to see I meant business.  Finally, he emitted a heavy sigh.  "Okay, okay.  The subject is closed.  But if you want my opinion, I think you're makin' the biggest mistake of your life."


     "Well, I don't want your opinion, and I'd advise you to keep it to yourself."

     I was excelling at being a disagreeable host today, and wouldn't have blamed Rick had he told me I could eat Chicken Kiev by myself for the next six nights in a row.  But he didn't.  He simply told me he'd see me later as I walked out the door. 


     I tried to forget all Rick had said as I drove back to my house.  Trouble was, his words kept swirling through my mind.  Especially the ones about me being in the process of making the biggest mistake of my life.   




S&S    S&S     S&S    S&S     S&S    S&S



     Rick came for dinner Saturday night like he promised he would, and just like he promised also, he didn't bring up the subject of Anita and Megan.  Which made our evening a very uncomfortable one to say the least.  It was like we were at a wake and trying to avoid mentioning the prominently displayed corpse. 


     I didn't sleep at all Saturday night, and spent most of Sunday pacing my house in frustration, though exactly who that frustration was aimed at shifted as quickly as the clouds flit across the sky.  Sometimes the object of my unrest and anger was Anita, sometimes her husband Michael, and sometimes myself. 


     I tried to lose myself in a book, but found I couldn't concentrate on the words.  I turned on the TV, but quickly lost interest in the movie I was trying to watch.  I finally fell into a troubled sleep on the couch, but even that didn't bring me the relief I sought.  Despite my weariness, I never did manage to enter a deep state of unawareness, and in thirty minutes I was up again roaming the main floor. 


     I went to work as usual on Monday morning, but by then two days of lack of sleep was wrecking havoc on my nerves.  I had to bite my tongue more than once to keep from snapping at Rick.  I'd already punched him, he didn't deserve me sniping at him as well.  Besides, that action would have only served to prove his theory that I'd come to regret my decision once I'd calmed down.


     I entered the office at eight-thirty on Tuesday morning and did the first thing I do every morning when I enter the office.  I turned the page over on my date calendar.  The red 5 in April 5th appeared to be bigger than normal.  The scarlet number seemed to be glaring at me in accusation  of some horrid misdeed.


     By eleven o'clock I found I couldn't concentrate on a thing.  I finally rose and snared my sport coat off the back of my chair.  "I'm leaving," I announced to my brother.


     Rick looked up from the case notes he was studying.  "Where you goin'?"


     "I don't know.  I just...I just need a day off, that's all.  I might take a drive.  Or maybe a walk on the beach.  I'll see you tomorrow."




     I stopped my progress for the door, but didn't turn around.  "What?"


     My body language must have clearly broadcast my unwillingness to bring up the only subject he wanted to discuss.  "Forget..."


     I knew he started to say, "Forget it."  Why he changed his mind, I don't know.


     There was a long pause, and then he said, "I took Megan and Anita out for dinner last night.   It's Megan's birthday today, you know."


     I took a deep breath.  "Yes, Rick, I know.  But it's as I told you on Saturday.   What you choose to do in regard to Megan is your business.  And what I choose to do is mine."


     Right before the door swung shut behind me I heard his vehement, "Damn stubborn jackass."



S&S    S&S     S&S    S&S     S&S    S&S



     I went home and changed into blue jeans, a hunter green polo shirt, and tennis shoes.  I looked through the mail while trying to down a sandwich.  Like most food since Saturday, it seemed to have no taste.  I took three bites of it before tossing it in the garbage.  I finished the glass of milk I'd poured, then grabbed my car keys off the counter.  I drove down to the waterfront and walked a stretch of isolated beach. I ran across a few sunbathers who were playing hooky from work, but other than that it was just me, the ocean, and a handful of screeching seagulls.


     After I'd gotten as much sand in my shoes as I could tolerate, I headed for my car.  I unlocked it and sat sideways on the warm driver's seat.  I emptied one shoe, then the other.  Why I headed for Mom's house when I backed the car out of the parking lot I still don't know.  She'd always been my sounding board when my troubles seemed too large to handle.  Suddenly, my troubles seemed to be of gargantuan proportions.  I rang the bell twice, but didn't get an answer.  Rather than use my key to enter the house I walked around back.  It was a beautiful day, and I had a good suspicion as to where I might find her.


     Sure enough, Mom was on her hands and knees in the flower garden.  She was pulling weeds, then working up the dirt with a small three-tined spade.  I stood back and watched her for a moment.  She derives so much pleasure from of her garden that I, in turn, derive pleasure from observing her diligence and joy.


     I didn't mean to scare her, but my silent presence caused her to jump when she reached around to pick up a tiny hoe.   "A.J.!"  She gasped.  "My goodness but you gave me a fright."


     I carefully stepped over two rows of flowers and offered her my hand.  Gently, I helped her to her feet.


     "Sorry, Mom.  I didn't mean to scare you."


     She brushed loose dirt off the knees of her blue jeans, then took her gloves off and laid them by her tools.   She smiled up at me.  "I know you didn't, sweetheart.  All is forgiven."


     Mom followed me out of the garden, taking note of the way I was dressed.  If I had been Rick, she wouldn't have questioned my casual attire, but she knew I didn't normally go to the office in jeans. 


"Aren't you working today?  Or are you on your way to do a stakeout or black bag job?"


     I smiled at how she'd unconsciously picked up the vernacular over the years.  And how she'd come to, at least somewhat, accept things like black bag jobs.


     "I did go to work for a few hours this morning, but then felt the need to...get away for a while."


     She looked at me, but didn't say anything other than, "Oh."  She led the way to the patio and the glass table it contained.  She pulled out a cushioned chair as she passed.  "Have a seat.  I could use a cold drink.  How about yourself?"


     "That would be fine," I agreed.


     "Coke, 7-UP, or lemonade?"


     "Lemonade.  Do you need my help?"


     "No, no.  You just sit there and enjoy the sunshine.  I'll be out in a minute."


     She returned carrying a tray with a pitcher of pink lemonade on it, two glasses filled with ice cubes and a plate of cookies.  I smiled at her.  "I didn't intend to stop by so you could give me an after-school snack."


     She laughed.  "I was hungry after all that work I've been doing, and thought you might be too.  Besides, it's three-thirty.  Everybody needs a little bit of sugar in their system at three-thirty."


     I couldn't argue that.  Although I hadn't had much of an appetite since Saturday, a couple of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of lemonade sounded pretty good right about then.


     The ice cubes hissed then cracked as Mom poured the pink liquid over them.  I reached for a cookie and took a bite.   "Mmmm, these are good."


     Mom slid a glass in my direction, took her seat, and snared a cookie for herself.  "I'll tell you a secret if you promise not to rat on me to your brother."


     "What secret is that?"


     "These are the same cookies I serve for desert on occasion when you boys come for our weekly dinners.  Rick thinks they're homemade.  Actually, I buy them in the grocery store's bakery shop."  She chuckled as she lifted her glass.  "Although I know it's only a compliment of my skills as a mother, sometimes your brother still views me as the Harriet Nelson of the neighborhood.  He really needs to update his thinking."  She rolled her eyes.  "As if I have time to make homemade cookies."


     I laughed at her.  "Your secret's safe with me, Mom.  And you're right, Rick's view of you is a compliment of everything the word mother embodies."


     Mom chatted on as we drained our glasses and filled our stomachs.  I was trying to be attentive to the news she was relaying to me, but my mind quickly drifted away to the other concerns that had been so pressing as of late. 


     "Don't you agree, A.J.?"

     With guilt, I tore my eyes from a distant part of the yard, where they'd been focused on a brightly colored flowerbed.  "Uh...oh yeah.  Sure, Mom.  Whatever you say."


     Mom pushed her plate aside.  She leaned forward and laid her arms on the table, folding them on top of one another.  "A.J.," she stated dryly, "I just asked you if you thought I should accept a job as a Can-Can girl at a Las Vegas dance hall."


     I felt burning color rise to flush my cheeks.  "Oh...sorry."

     She smiled at my embarrassment.  "You don't have to apologize, sweetheart.  If I was boring you, all you had to do was say so."


     I shook my head.  "You weren't boring me.  It's's just that I've got a couple of things on my mind today, that's all."


     She studied me a moment.  "Anything you'd like to talk about?"


     I turned my head and looked out over the backyard again.  "I'm not sure.  I guess...well, I guess to be perfectly honest I hadn't intended to talk to you about them."


     She accepted that answer without any argument, just like I knew she would.  "Whatever you think is best.  But if you change your mind, my door is always open."


     I smiled.  "I know that."


     We talked of other things for a few minutes.  This time I paid closer attention to the conversation and held up my end of it.  But my mind was never far from what the date on the calendar signified, and when we came to a lull between topics I commented casually, "Anita Cooper's in town for a few days."


     "Anita?"  Mom questioned with surprise. "Really?  You haven't seen her in what?  It must be over twenty years now, isn't it?"


     "Yes," I nodded vaguely.  "Something like that."


     I could see Mom's mind drift back to 1967.  "I got to know her mother fairly well after Anita ran away.  I felt so sorry for the poor woman.  And her husband, as well.  They were nice people.  They had just lost their son so tragically, and then to have Anita up and take off like that...well, I never did understand it, and I don't suppose her parents did either.  A year or two later I ran across a neighbor of theirs in the grocery store and she told me Anita had a bad drug problem.


     "So I've heard," was what I acknowledged.  I swallowed hard before I went on to divulge further information.  "Anita came to see me on Saturday.  Her life has really changed since she left San Diego.  She lives in a small town outside of San Francisco, is married, and child.  Her parents are both deceased now."


     "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," Mom sympathized.  "I knew her father had passed away a few years ago.  I saw the obituary in the paper.  But I didn't know her mother was gone now as well."


     I nodded.  "She died early last summer.  Actually, the first contact I had with Anita wasn't with Anita at all.  It was with her daughter Megan.  She showed up at the office last August and hired Rick and me."


     "Hired you to do what?"


     From there, I explained how Megan had contracted Rick and me to investigate Larry's death, and what we subsequently found out about it.  I told Mom how I'd gotten to know Megan during the week and a half she was in San Diego, and what a nice young woman I found her to be. 


     "And when Megan left," I finished, "it was with the promise that she'd return someday soon for a visit, and bring her mother with her."


     Mom smiled.  "That's so nice.  I'm glad to hear Anita was able to straighten her life out.  She was a rather...wild young woman."


     Mom was diplomatic enough to let her opinions of Anita rest on those few words.  She picked up her glass and took a small bite out of a half melted ice cube.   "I'm sure you enjoyed your visit with Anita.  I imagine you two had a lot to catch up on.  Did her husband and daughter come over with her?"


     I shook my head.  "No.  Her husband stayed up in Hollander - that's the town they live in.  He had a heart transplant last summer and is still recovering.  Her...her daughter stayed at the hotel.  Anita wanted talk to me privately."


     Her next question was only natural.  "About what?"  She no more than got that out of her mouth before she was apologizing.  "I'm sorry, A.J.  I shouldn't have asked that.  It's none of my business."

     "That's okay.   I...I need to tell you anyway."


     "Tell me what?"


     "What Anita said."


     Mom chuckled.  "I feel like we're playing a game of telephone."


     I couldn't help but laugh as well at the way I was doing a good job of trying to tell Mom something without really telling her anything at all.


     I wouldn't allow myself not to look her in the face when I told her the news, though God knows it was tempting to focus my eyes everywhere but on her features.


     I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. "Anita wanted to tell me that her daughter, Megan...Megan Andrea...that Megan is my daughter, too."




     I didn't do anything more than nod my head to confirm she'd heard me correctly.


     A few seconds passed before she could speak.  "Is it possible?"


     My face flushed just a bit again, and I chuckled softly.  "Yes, Mom, it's possible.  When Megan came to see Rick and me last August she told us she was seventeen years old.  But she lied to us.  She's a bit older than that.  Today's her twentieth birthday."


     Just like I had done Saturday, I could see Mom adding months together in her head and coming to the realization that Anita would have been pregnant when she left San Diego all those years ago.


     "And you know Megan is yours for certain?  Are you sure Anita isn't lying to you for some reason?"

     "If you saw Megan you wouldn't have to ask that.  She's a beautiful girl, Mom.  Now that I know the truth, I realize she looks a lot like Dad, and she's the spitting image of Aunt Pat."


     "Which means she looks like you," Mom concluded.


     "I suppose she does, though I don't really see it."


     Mom sat back in her chair and gave me a stern look.  There was a twinkle in her eye that contrasted her firm tone.  "Well, young man, this is exactly why I told you twenty years ago I didn't like you spending all your time with Anita."


     I chuckled.  I knew she was teasing, but that as well, to a certain extent she was serious.  I'm sure no parent likes to acknowledge their child engaged in sexually activity while still in high school, no matter how many years later they may discover that fact. 


"Sorry, Mom.  Unfortunately a mother's advice is usually ignored when teenage hormones surge in the back of a Woody on a moonlit night."


     Mom gave me a coy smile.  "I understand what you're saying, A.J.  Although your father and I waited until our wedding night," she stopped there and amended when my half-sister Emilie came to her mind, "although I waited for our wedding night, I'll be the first to admit it wasn't always easy.  To be honest with you, I think that's ninety percent of the reason why young people got married so early in my day.  The coming of the birth control pill, career opportunities for women, and fewer taboos in society regarding sex, changed things drastically for your generation.  But for my generation, and for prior ones, things were different.  It wasn't that young people didn't want to have sex, and of course some did, but overall there were just too many risks involved and too many restrictions in place.  Which is why most of us married by the ages of eighteen or nineteen.  So to be honest with you, what you're telling me comes as no great surprise."


     "I want you to know that I wasn't completely foolish," I informed   her.  "Not that this is an excuse or anything, but I thought Anita was on the pill."

     That was probably the wrong thing to say.  Mom never had been much of an Anita fan.  In a voice that stated indignantly, ‘How dare she?’  Mom asked, "And she lied to you about that?"


     I shook my head.  "No.  At least she said she didn't.  She told me she wasn't always faithful in her use of birth control, however."


     Mom nodded her understanding of the careless ways of teenage girls...and teenage boys as well.


     I spent the next twenty minutes telling Mom everything I knew ranging from Anita's days as a drug addict, to when her parents were threatening to take Megan from her, to when and how she met Michael Jennings.  I told her how Michael had adopted Megan when she was four, and how up until she was fifteen my existence had been a well kept secret.  I went on to explain why it had remained a secret until now.  I also told her Rick figured out almost instantly who Megan was on her first visit to our office the previous August, and how he had confronted her about that before she left for home.


     "But your brother didn't tell you Megan was your daughter?"


     "No.  He didn't tell me.  I probably would have never discovered that he's known all along had Anita not let it slip on Saturday."


     Mom shot me a scolding smile.  "So that explains Rick's bruised jaw.  He stopped by here on Sunday morning to share a bag of doughnuts with me.  I asked him what happened to his face.  He said he slipped on the deck of his boat while he was fishing and hit his jaw against the railing."


     I smiled back at her.  "Let's just say I gave him a little shove in that direction."


     "I'll just bet you did.  I hope you apologized."


     I chuckled.  "Not exactly.  But I did have him come over for dinner on Saturday night."


     My mother was satisfied.  "To Rick that's an apology."  She leaned forward in her chair with anticipation.  "So when am I going to meet my granddaughter?"


     I looked away from her.  "I...quite frankly I don't know if you ever will, Mom."


     Her confusion and disappointment were plain to hear.  "What do you mean?  You said she and Anita were in town for a few days.  Aren't they still here?"


     "Yes," I slowly nodded.  "They're staying at the Fillmore.  But I...I haven't made contact with them since I...since I told Anita to get the hell out of my house on Saturday."

     "And just why not?"

     I turned to face her again and beseeched, "What's the point?  Twenty years have come and gone, and in that time a little girl has grown into a woman.  She doesn't a need a father.  Besides, she's already got one," I finished bitterly.

     "Is that what this is all about?"  Mom challenged.  "Are you afraid you're going to be competing with Megan's adoptive father for her affection?"

     "I...I don't know.  Maybe that's some of it."


     "Well, A.J., that's just damn foolishness. If Megan is half the girl you say she is then she's got enough affection for both you and Michael Jennings, with plenty leftover for Rick and me, too.  Very few people in this world have limits to their love, A.J.  You know that as well as I do.  That's what's so special about this intangible thing we call love.  We can't taste it, or touch it, or see it, or smell it, but we know its there in never-ending abundance.  And we recognize it every time someone smiles at us, or hugs us, or just spends time with us.   You'd better do some long hard thinking before you close the door on your daughter.  When the day comes you decide you want to reopen it, she just might not be waiting on the other side."


     My eyes dropped to the table.  My acknowledgment was soft and choked.  "I know."




     She wouldn't go on until I made eye contact with her again. 


"You're correct when you say Megan is a grown woman now, and no longer needs a father in the way young children do.  And you're correct, too, when you say she already has a man in her life that she thinks of as her father.  But obviously that isn't enough for her, because if it was she wouldn't have sought you out.  But she has.  And there must be reason for it.  There are probably a thousand reasons for it, but you won't know any of them if you refuse to see her. 


     "And I want you to remember as well, the ten years you had with your own father.  When we say ten years it seems like a lot of time has passed, but just think about it.  Do you really feel like you got a chance to know your dad before he died?"


     I was forced to shake my head no.  Looking back now, almost thirty years later, those ten short years Dad and I had together seem like nothing more than a few days.  So much has changed since his passing, not only within his family, but the world has changed too, in an infinite number of ways.


     "And so now you tell me twenty years has already come and gone without you knowing Megan.  Evidently you're thinking twenty years signifies the passage of too much time in order for the two of you to form some kind of lasting relationship."  She reached over and squeezed my hand.  "But, A.J., twenty years is just a drop in the bucket compared to the time you could yet have with your daughter.  She's barely more than a girl, and you're still a young man yourself, just eighteen years older than her.  My goodness, you could have forty or fifty years ahead of you to be Megan's father.  Will she need you like she needed you when she was six?  Of course not.  None of us can ever go back and recapture what's already passed.  But you've got a lifetime ahead of you yet, A.J."  Her grip tightened and her eyes bore into mine with an intensity I'd never seen before.  "Please, don't be so foolish as to throw those years away simply because your stubborn pride got in the way."


     I pulled my quivering lower lip in-between my teeth and blinked rapidly to clear my eyes of sudden tears.  I squeezed her hand in return. 


     In a harsh whisper I confessed, "I don't know what to do, Mom."


     "Go see your daughter, A.J.," she urged.  "Go see your daughter and wish her a happy birthday."




S&S    S&S     S&S    S&S     S&S    S&S



     It was five thirty-five by the time I parked the Camaro in the Fillmore's lot.  I had made a quick stop after leaving Mom's before heading to the hotel on the opposite side of town.


     I didn't bother the desk clerk for Anita's room number, I remembered it.  127.  I had been here enough with Megan the previous August to be able to forego consulting the directory in the hotel's lobby.  I moved straight toward a bank of elevators and summed a car.  It arrived in seconds and was devoid of passengers.  I stepped inside and pressed the number 2.


     The doors dinged softly and slowly slid open when I'd reached my destination.  The hallway was deserted.  My tennis shoes sank into the plush red carpeting in much the same way they'd sunk into the sand at the beach several hours earlier. 


     The room Anita and Megan shared was a corner one all the way at the end of the hall.  Based on its location I knew it was a suite.  Megan had been housed in one on the fourth floor when she'd been here in August.  Given Michael Jennings high standing within the organization, I assumed he and his family stayed free at any Fillmore they frequented across the country.


     I didn't hear any sounds coming from within the room when I knocked on the door.  I was just about to knock again when I thought I could detect someone's footsteps shuffling on carpeting.  There was a pause, and I assumed whomever was inside was looking out the peephole. I heard a sharp click that indicated to me the door was being unlocked.


     When it opened Anita awaited me on the other side.  We stood facing one another a long moment before she moved toward me.  I took her in my arms and bent down to hug her.  She wrapped her arms around my neck and began to cry into my shirt. 


     "I'm sorry, A.J.," she wept.  "I'm sorry I've caused you so much pain."


     I pulled her even closer and squeezed my eyes shut to keep my own tears from falling.  "You don't have to apologize anymore.  I understand.  I may not like it, but I understand.  You did the best you could.  You thought you were doing the right thing."

     We held each other for a long time.  When her tears finally stopped, Anita pulled away from me and self-consciously swiped at her eyes.


     "Look at me," she laughed.  "I'm a mess."


     I smiled softly.  "No you're not.  You're still as beautiful to me now as you were when you were seventeen."


     She reached out and took my hand.  "We had something special then, didn't we, A.J.?  It was more than just puppy love, wasn't it?"


     "Yes, Anita, it was.” I nodded.  “At least to us it was."


     She studied my face as though trying to gauge why I had finally made an appearance.  She must have found her answer there because she didn't ask any questions. 


     "Megan's in the solarium," she stated.  "That's where she likes to go when she needs to think.  She's been there a lot since Saturday.  She'll be very happy to see you."


     I hoped Anita was right.  I hoped my stubbornness hadn't jeopardized what chance I had of establishing a relationship with my daughter.   I wouldn't have blamed her if she'd told me to get the hell out of her life.  To tell you the truth, I was half expecting her to.


     I walked away from Anita, and could feel her follow my movements with her eyes.  It wasn't until I reached the elevator that I heard her door close.


     Once back in the lobby I made my way to the solarium.  I had been there one other time.  Megan and I had drank sodas and eaten hot dogs at one of its tables the last time she was in town. 


     The room was empty save for Megan when I entered.  Her back was to me, and she was staring at the outdoor pool beyond the glass.  It was unoccupied at the moment.  The water was serene and a clear, chlorinated blue.   


     I didn't want to scare her, so softly said her name when I got within four feet of her.  "Megan?"


     Her hair fanned out behind her as her graceful neck turned.  Her eyes widened in surprise.  "A.J.?"

     I nodded my head, trying to tell her with that gesture everything I couldn't say.  That I was sorry.  That I loved her.  And that now I was here for her, for as long as she would have me. 


     Megan's a beautiful girl with a generous, forgiving soul.  Not one word of incrimination about where I'd been or why I had refused to see her crossed her lips.  She left her chair and took three tentative steps toward me, as if she didn't know quite what to do. 


     I met her the rest of the way and pulled her into my arms without even asking her if that would be okay.  I guess it was, because like her mother just a few short minutes earlier, Megan wrapped her arms around my neck and started to cry.  And like her mother, she also apologized.  Only she had nothing to apologize for, and I told her that as tears flowed down my own cheeks to fall softly in her sweet smelling hair.


     When we finally broke apart I reached out one gentle hand and with my thumb brushed her tears away.  "I can't stand to see my little girl cry," I told her. 


     That only made the tears start up again, but this time they were brief and interspersed with a chuckle given for my words.


     I put a hand on Megan’s back and led her over to the table she had just vacated.  As we sat down I pulled a long, thin box from my back pocket.  It was wrapped in silvery blue paper and had small silver bow tied around it.  I pushed the box toward Megan.


     "What's this?"


     I smiled.  "It's a birthday present."


     "Oh, A.J., you didn't have to."


     "No, I didn't have to," I agreed.  "But I wanted to.  You're twenty years old today, and this is the first birthday present I've ever been able to give you.  You can't imagine what that means to me, or how much it hurts me."


     She gave a slow nod of her head in acknowledgment of my words.  She smiled at me again while delicately unwrapping the gift.  When she had the paper removed she was holding a white box.  She opened it, only to find a slender blue velvet case inside.  She tipped the white box just enough to allow the hinged case to drop into her hand.  She turned it over and sat it on the table, then opened it.

     "Oh, A.J," she whispered as her eyes grew round with wonder.   "A.J., it's beautiful.  Absolutely beautiful.  It's the most beautiful gift anyone has ever given me."


     I doubted that, but I appreciated her saying so nonetheless.  Nor did I doubt the sincerity behind her words.  Considering this gift signified the beginning of our relationship as father and daughter, it probably was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever given her. It was a diamond tennis bracelet that had cost me six hundred dollars.


     And she was worth every penny of it.


     Megan lifted the bracelet from its case and held her slender wrist out to me.  Shyly she asked, "Would you like to put it on me?"


     I smiled and took the bracelet from her.  As I fumbled with the tiny clasp for a moment she teased me.  "It's pretty obvious you're new at this."


     I could literally feel my eyes twinkling with delight as they traveled to her face.  "Yes, it is. And I can assure you I'm looking forward to all the other new experiences that are in store for me where you're concerned. "


     When the bracelet was fastened she leaned over and gave me another hug.  "Thank you again, A.J.  Thank you for everything."


     I returned her embrace and whispered, "Happy birthday, sweetheart.  Happy birthday."



S&S    S&S     S&S    S&S     S&S    S&S



     I left Megan and Anita that evening only long enough to go home and make reservations at one of the best restaurants in the city.   I took a quick shower and put on a suit and tie before returning to pick them up.   They were waiting for me in the lobby when I arrived, both having showered and changed clothes as well.  It wasn't lost on me that Megan was wearing the bracelet I'd given her just two hours earlier.


     Despite Megan's need to return to school, she and Anita delayed their trip home by one day to allow Megan to spend time with Mom and me on Wednesday.  Mom instantly fell in love with her granddaughter, and I could tell Megan reciprocated those feelings in kind.  Mom had all of us - me, Megan, Anita, and Rick, over for dinner on Wednesday evening.   Things were a bit cool between Mom and Anita, as I had been expecting.   Mom never cared too much for Anita, and Anita had always been intimidated by what she perceived to be my formidable mother.


     I won't say they were best friends by the end of the evening, I doubt they ever will be.  But the love they both have for Megan at least gave them some common ground to stand on for the first time in their lives.  I overheard Mom asking Anita a lot of questions about Megan's childhood at one point, those questions in turn gave them reason to share all the joys and worries motherhood had brought them, and was still bringing them.


     When it was time for me to take Megan and Anita back to their hotel that night Mom gave Megan a long hug and a kiss on the cheek.  She wouldn't be seeing her granddaughter again until the next time Megan visited San Diego, which she promised would be the week of my birthday in late July.


     Mom even gave Anita a hug that night and thanked her for raising such a wonderful girl.


     I took Anita and Megan to the airport the next morning.  I didn't leave until their plane took off.  As Mom said, time goes by so fast, and it's foolish to waste even a minute of it.  I could have spent five days with my daughter, but my pig headed stubbornness had whittled that time down to barely two. 


     I talked to Megan three times on the phone during that month.  She attended the University of California in San Francisco.  Though the city was within fifty miles of her home, she chose to live in the dorms rather than commute. 


     It was in early May when she called me one evening just as I walked in the door from work.



     I immediately recognized her voice.  I'm certain she could hear the smile in mine.  "Hi, Megan.  How are you?"


     "I'm fine.  How are you?"


     We made small talk for a moment, then she got down to the reason for her call.  Aside from her studies, Megan danced for a small ballet company in San Francisco.  She'd started taking lessons not long after her mother and Michael married, and continues taking lessons even yet today.  She invited me to a performance on a Friday night in the middle of May that she had the lead role in.  Then she went on to say, "I'd like it if you could spend the weekend here.  My college has a father/daughter dance every spring, and it just happens to fall on the Saturday evening after my performance.  I'd like both you and Dad...Michael, to escort me."


     She had yet to call me anything but A.J., and I doubted she ever would.  And although it hurt me a little, I longed to hear her refer to me just once as Dad, I understood why she didn't.  To Megan, Michael Jennings was her father and always would be.  I was just A.J., the man who had gotten her mother pregnant, and was now slowly becoming a friend. 


     "I don't know, Megan," I hesitated.  "I don't want to cause hard feelings between you and your dad.  I think maybe I'd better pass this time."


     "Please, A.J.," she begged.  "I really want you to.   I've already talked to Dad about it and it's okay with him."


     I highly doubted Megan's plan was okay with Michael at all.  I know how I'd feel if I was in his place, like the new man in my daughter's life was trying to horn in on my territory.  I assumed Michael had told her it was okay simply because he didn't want to hurt her.


     Her plea came over the phone line once again.  "Please, A.J.  It would mean so much to me."


     I smiled at her little girl tone and thought with regret of all I'd missed.  Thought of all the times she’d probably used that tone with Michael to plead for a candy bar, or an extra hour awake before being sent to bed, or for some toy she thought she just had to have.  "Please, Daddy," I could hear her beg almost as clear as though she was standing before me.  I wished I could have been a part of those times so bad that the hurt was like an open wound.


     "A.J., please," she tried one last time when my wandering mind didn't allow me to respond.


     "All right,” I finally agreed.  "If you're certain it's okay with Mic...your dad."


     "I'm certain.  And don't make any hotel reservations.  Mom's going to make them for you at the Fillmore here in San Francisco.  Your stay won't cost you a dime."


     "No, Megan, I don't feel right about--"


     She cut me off before I could finish.  "You can take that up with Mom.  She's going to call you just as soon as I let her know you're coming.  Oh, and you'll need a tuxedo for Saturday night.  Is that okay?"


     I laughed.  "If you were talking to your Uncle Rick the answer would be no, it's not okay."


     She laughed as well, already recognizing Rick's love of blue jeans and cowboy boots.


     "But you're talking to me, and yes, that's fine.   I'll rent a tux here and bring it with me."


     "Good.  I'll see you Friday night the 18th.  Mom will be calling you in a few days.  Bye, A.J."


     "Bye, Megan." 


     I wanted to add, “I love you,” like my mother often does before hanging up the phone after talking to Rick or myself, but Megan and I hadn't reached a point in our fledging relationship where either one of us was comfortable saying that.   Megan, because I didn't think she really felt it yet, and me because I didn't want to pressure her into saying something she'd rather not.  I mean, usually when you say, “I love you,” to someone, the response you get back in return is, “I love you, too.”   If you don't, that's generally a good indication that something is seriously wrong.


     Anita called a few days later like Megan had promised.  She let me know she'd made a reservation for me in one of the Fillmore's suites from Thursday, May 17th, until Sunday the 20th.  I told her that wasn't necessary, and that I was perfectly capable of paying for my own hotel accommodations, but she wouldn't hear of it.  I also told her I didn't need a room for Thursday night, as I wouldn't drive up until Friday since Megan's performance didn't start until seven-thirty on Friday evening.


     There was a brief pause before Anita carefully broached what she wanted to request next.  "A.J., I'd like you to spend Friday with Michael and me.  Megan and I think it would be...nice if you and Michael got to know one another.  I want you to come to the house for lunch, then stay the afternoon."


     Now I knew why Megan had told me Anita was going to call.  My daughter probably assumed I'd refuse such an invitation if she issued it.  And she would have been correct.  Nor did I particularly want to accept it from Anita.


     "Anita...I don't think--"


     "Please, A.J.  It's important to Megan that you and Michael get acquainted."


     That might have been true, but it wasn't important to me, and I could make an educated guess that it wasn't very important to Michael either.  Personally, I thought the farther the two of us stayed from one another the better off we'd all be.


     "Please, A.J.  For Megan."


     Lately all I seemed to be doing was talking to pleading women on the phone.  I rolled my eyes and sighed.  "All right, all right. For Megan.  But look...if your husband changes his mind, just give me a call and I'll..."


     "He won't change his mind.  I'll expect to see you around eleven on Friday the 18th.  I'll send you a map in the mail next week with directions to both the hotel and our house."


     Her map arrived just as she promised.  Two weeks later I left the office at noon on Thursday and headed the car north.  With the rush hour traffic I'd encountered from four to six I didn't get settled in my room at the San Francisco Fillmore until nine-fifteen that night.  I called Megan to let her know I was in town.  Then I asked her to call her mother for me so Anita knew she could expect to see me the next day for lunch as previously discussed.  Why I didn't call Anita myself I don't know.  I guess I didn't feel like talking to her husband if he should happen to be the one who answered the phone.  I didn't think our 'friendship' would start out on the right foot if I immediately told him to go to hell for keeping my daughter from me.


     Hollander was exactly forty-seven point four miles from San Francisco.  I wouldn't exactly refer to it as a sleepy little town like Megan had, but then after living in San Francisco for two years I suppose that's how a twenty-year-old would view it.  It rested quaintly on the Pacific coast, though its trade came more from tourists looking for a quiet weekend away than from the fishing industry.  Its welcome sign proclaimed it have ten thousand five hundred and thirty-six residents.  I passed several old motels on the outskirts of town, and then a couple of newer ones like a Super 8 and a Best Western.  The heart of what once had been downtown was reminiscent of small town America fifty years in the past.  Two story brick stores lined the wide streets with parking meters strategically placed in front of every one.  I passed an old-fashioned Mom and Pop style variety store, and then an Ace Hardware store housed in an aging building.  There were also a number of small shops that catered to the tourist trade by offering everything for sale from postcards, to seashells, to T-shirts that read Hollander, California in almost every color imaginable.   As well there were three cafes, a theatre, a shoe store, a barbershop, a locksmith, an ice cream parlor, and two community banks. It was a tribute to the people that lived here that these old fashioned businesses still thrived.  Especially when I came to some sprawling acreage just south of there that had a large modern grocery store, four restaurants, a new cinema complex, a K-Mart, a McDonald's, a Burger King, and a strip mall that included a video store and a take-out pizza place.


     I followed Anita's directions and passed through a section of town with older two story homes that bordered the waterfront for several miles.  One turn left, and then one turn right, brought me to a neighborhood of newer homes that all looked to be under twenty years old.


     I watched the street names until I came to Spafford.  I turned left again and counted four houses down on my right.  I pulled in the driveway of sprawling brick ranch style home. 


     A car was in the driveway, and through the open garage door I could see another one residing within.  I assumed both Anita and her husband must have taken the day off work in honor of my visit.  I already had a feeling her husband would have preferred to be at the office.


     The garage was built out from the house like the small portion of the capital letter L.  The rest of the house spread out to the side of the garage like the longer part of an L.


     It was obvious the lawn had been freshly mowed.  The comforting scent of cut grass hung heavy in the air, and I spied a stray clipping here and there.  I guessed that when Anita and her husband had built the home the lot it resided on was fairly barren because medium sized trees were just starting to thicken and mature in the front.  I had to admit someone had a good eye for landscaping.  All the tree trunks were circled with black ornamental edging, the circles then filled with white rock.  White rock lay in the shrubbery beds that lined the house as well.  A frog planter sat on the sidewalk and was filled with geraniums.  A swan rested on the front step and sprouted petunias.  Four white baskets of flowers and ivy resided from the overhang covering the concrete walkway.  I pressed the doorbell and listened to the melody echo throughout the house.  Even standing outside like I was, I could smell the spicy scent of tomato sauce and Italian sausage baking together in the oven.


     It was a beautiful day in the mid-seventies.  Anita came to the door casually dressed in a pair of khaki walking shorts and a button up cotton shirt stripped in khaki and yellow. 


     She hugged me.  "Hello, A.J.  I'm so glad you could make it."


     I smiled as I hugged her back.  "Thanks.  I'm glad I could make it too."


     Okay, okay.  So that part was stretching the truth a bit. 

What was I supposed to say? I'm only glad I made it if your husband isn't around?


     We entered into the living room.  It was large and tastefully decorated with a twelve foot cathedral ceiling.  Not a speck of dust marred its impeccable appearance.  The carpeting was pale pink and the walls a shade of beige that looked like the inside of a seashell.  If the light shined on them just right they took on a pale pink cast.   There was a white brick fireplace at one end of the room.  Two pink easy chairs framed the wide picture window that looked out over the front yard.  Across from them against the half wall that separated the living room from the kitchen was the couch.  It was striped in shades of pink and beige. 


     Anita turned to me and smiled.  "Would you like the two dollar tour?"


     "Sure," I amiably agreed.  I'll admit I was curious to see the house my daughter had grown up in.


     I could view the dining area from where I stood.  The living room carpet traveled in to cover its floor as well, then continued on down the hall that led to a bathroom and two bedrooms.  One bedroom had a desk and computer in it, and I took it to be used as a home office.  It also contained a couch, that based on its size, caused me to assume it pulled out into a bed.  The remaining bedroom was Megan's.  Anita stood back and indicated for me to step inside. 


     "Feel free to look around if you'd like," she invited.    


     The room seemed to contain all that was Megan from girlhood until the present.  An old teddy bear with a gnawed ear sat on the blue and white quilted bedspread.  A pair of tiny ballet slippers, probably the first ones she ever wore, hung from the corner of a shelf.  I walked over and scanned the shelves.  Trophies and medals lined four of them.  The awards represented everything from citations for academic achievements, to her excellence at dance, to trophies won for cheerleading competitions, to trophies honoring the winning soccer team she'd played on four years in a row, and as well two trophies proclaiming her as the soccer team's most valuable player.  There was a picture of her soccer team amidst the trophies, and one of her high school cheerleading squad. 


     From the doorway Anita asked,   "Can you pick out which girl is Megan is those two pictures?"


     "Yep."  I turned and smiled while pointing to the correct girl both times.  "She's the prettiest one."


     Anita laughed.   "Oh, A.J."


     My eyes traveled to her books next.  I cocked my head to better read the titles.  I was pleased to see many of Megan’s favorites were mine as well.


     As though she could read my mind, Anita said, "She got her love of reading from you.  When she was as young as a year old she'd climb up on my lap with her Golden Books and say ‘book, book, book.’  I think other than ‘Mama,’ that was one of the first words she knew."


     I nodded as once again it hit home as to how much I had missed.  Megan was far too old to climb up on my lap now to be read to.  How I would have loved the chance to do that with her when she was small.


     I came to another shelf with trophies, these for various karate competitions.


     "Megan knows karate?"  I asked with surprise.


     "Yes.  She and Michael started taking lessons together when she was nine.  She's always loved athletics of all kinds.  Therefore, it didn't take much encouragement on our part to get her to agree to give up her Saturday morning cartoons in favor of karate.  Michael thought with all the scary things you hear happening to kids in today's world it was a good idea for Megan to know how to defend herself.  She's a third degree black belt now. After she gets out of college and has more time she'd like to teach a children's karate class."


       Despite the fact that Megan took those karate lessons with Michael, when it could have very well been me she was taking them with, I was pleased to discover the chances of her falling victim to an assault were almost nonexistent.


     My eyes roamed the room and caught a glimpse of another framed picture, this one on Megan's nightstand.  It looked like a high school prom picture.  The boy standing with his arms around Megan was tall, dark, and handsome, as the saying goes, and in every way complimented her coloring and beauty.


     I picked the photograph up.  "Who's this boy in the picture with her?"


     "That's Jeremy Rondell.  He was her high school sweetheart."


     I turned to look at Anita.  "Does she still see him?"


     "No.  At least not in the sense if you mean do they still date.  They broke up shortly after they headed for college.   Jeremy goes to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  They found out a long distance romance isn't all it's cracked up to be.  They talk on the phone once and a while, and see each other when they're home on break, but they're just good friends now."


     I put the picture back where I'd found it.  "Is she seeing anyone else?"


     Anita smiled at me.  "Are you feeling the urge to play the role of protective father?"


     I was, but I wasn't going to admit that to her.  Megan was a beautiful girl.  The kind of girl who would easily attract a swarm of boys like honey attracts bees.  I know, because I was once one of those boys who would have been swarming around her buzzing for all I was worth.


     "No," I denied in answer to Anita's teasing.  "I'm simply curious, that's all."


     She nodded knowingly.  "Sure you are.  But to answer your question, no, she isn't seeing anyone right at the moment.  Up until a few months ago she was dating a young man she'd met in one of her classes last year, but for whatever reason they went their separate ways.  I don't think Megan plans to get too serious about anyone until she finishes her schooling.  At least I hope not.  I don't want her to repeat the same mistakes I made, and we've often talked about that in recent years.  Don't worry.  Like her father, Megan's got a good head on her shoulders, A.J."


     I didn't know whether Anita meant me or Michael when she referred to Megan's father, so I said no more than, "I'm glad to hear that."


     Anita led me back to the dining area that opened into her homey kitchen.  They were separated by no more than a snack bar similar to the way my kitchen and den are separated.  Together, the two rooms were the size of the living room.  The dining area had patio doors that overlooked the backyard.   A round oak table that sat six resided in the middle of the floor.  An oak china hutch that was taller than it was wide rested against the only wall.  Three oak stools sat at the snack bar.  The kitchen cabinets were oak, as was the hardwood floor. The ceramic tile that covered the walls between the counter top and cabinets was a dusty rose color and had deep blue teapots painted on them.   Any remaining wall space was painted the same color as the living room, as had been the dining room and the walls that lined the hallway to the bedrooms. 


     Anita opened a door that I thought did nothing more than hide the broom closet, but instead it led to the basement.  They had a huge finished family room down there that spanned the width of the house and almost ran its length as well.  One wall contained a home entertainment center, another a fireplace.  This one was made of rugged fieldstones.  Other than the family room the basement housed a small bathroom and a laundry room.


     We went back upstairs where Anita showed me the master bedroom and bath.  It was down a short hallway to the side of the kitchen and built behind the garage.  We didn't linger there very long before she was taking me back through the kitchen again.   


     I couldn't have asked for a nicer home and neighborhood for my daughter to grow up in, except maybe my own of course.  I refrained from mentioning the last part of that thought when I complimented Anita on her beautiful home.


     Anita smiled.  "Thank you.  Believe me, Megan and I have come a long way from where we started out."


     I nodded.  "I'm sure you have."


     I followed her to the dining area and out the patio doors.  A white round table with a yellow umbrella sat in the middle of the concrete.  A black Weber grill stood back against the house.  Off to the side two white chaise lounges with matching yellow cushions rested beside one another.


     There were two groupings of white birch trees in the backyard flanked by bright pink blooming crabapples.  A flowerbed made from railroad ties lined the house.


     "Someone really likes to work in the yard," I stated.


      Anita nodded.  "Michael.  He has quite a green thumb."


     She shaded her eyes from the glare of the mid-day sun and scanned the backyard.  At almost the same time we both spotted who I presumed was her husband.  A man in faded blue jeans and a red and white checked oxford shirt was in a small patch of vegetable garden at the very edge of the yard.  From what I could tell he was nurturing tomatoes, cucumbers, and green beans.


     "Michael!"  Anita hailed. "Michael, A.J.'s here!"


     I had a feeling he'd known that all along, and by all along I mean ever since I'd pulled into the driveway.  I think he planned to delay the inevitable until Anita left him no choice but to join us.  Not that I really blamed the guy.  I could have easily passed on this meeting as well.


     "Michael!"  Anita called to him again as one would an errant child.


     I had to smile to myself when I heard his obedient, "Coming, dear."  It reminded me of how Rick used to ignore Mom's calls as long as he could when he was a kid, and then just as she was about to lose her temper he'd call sweetly in return, "Coming, Mom."


     At first I thought Michael was purposefully going to bypass us and walk around to the front of the house.  But as he drew closer I realized he was only stopping to wash his hands at an outside faucet.  When his hands were clean he shook them in the air a few times to dry them, then ran them over the thighs of his jeans to get off the excess water.


     He was several inches shorter than me, making him around five foot nine in height.  He was lean, but not in the hardened way a man gets from eating right and exercising regularly.  His thinness spoke of his recent health problems.  By the amount of excess material underneath his belt I guessed he was still at least fifteen pounds lighter than was normal for him.  Where his shirt was open at his throat I could see about two inches of thick pink scar tissue.


     Unlike his thin body, Michael’s face was round.  As he stood across from me I could tell its fullness was actually swelling from the anti-rejection drug he had to take daily.  His eyes were hazel, a cross between pale green and gray.  His blond hair was a few shades darker than mine, though streaked bright gold in places, which made me suspect he might have been a redhead as a child.  It was receding where he parted it, and his forehead was wide in a way that led me to believe his bangs were beginning to thin as well.  Since Anita said he was ten years older than her that meant if he hadn't already celebrated his forty-ninth birthday, he would be sometime before the year ended.


     If Anita's cheeriness were catching, Michael and I would have been infected with a good dose of it by then.  She smiled as though she was certain we were soon going to be the best of friends.


     "Michael," she introduced, "This is A.J."                 


     She linked her arm through her husband's when she turned to me.  There was no mistaking the love in her voice or the pride in her eyes.  "And, A.J., this is Michael."


     Michael and I were both polite enough men to offer each other our hands simultaneously.  Like two boys on the school playground being forced to shake and make-up, we mumbled greetings neither one of us could understand.


     When our hands dropped we stood there glaring at each other.  I mentally pictured two angry bulls locked in the same pen fighting for the affection of a lovely young calf.  I think if we could have pawed the ground and snorted at each other before butting heads until one of us was down for the count we would have.


     Anita must have decided it was wise not to leave us alone to entertain ourselves because she announced it was time to eat.


     "Come on, you two," she urged as she led the way back into the house.  "You guys can set the table for me while I get the food out of the oven."


     Like the well-behaved boys we were, Michael and I followed Anita and accepted the plates, glasses and silverware she handed us.  Of course, working together as we did, it didn't take us more than a few seconds to get the table set, which gave us more time to glare and snort.  Anita, our ever-diligent matador, stepped in again and handed me salads out of the refrigerator.  She issued me instructions to set them on the table.  At the same time, she handed her husband a pitcher of iced tea and a pitcher of lemonade and asked him to do the same.


     A casserole dish of bubbling mostaccioli soon sat in the middle of the table as did a loaf of warm Italian bread.  Anita indicated for Michael to sit at the head of the table with his back to the patio doors.  She had me sit at the opposite end from him, with herself to my left and sandwiched between us.  I knew there had to be some significance to this seating arrangement, and figured she thought it was a good idea to keep us at least three arm lengths away from one another. 


     Conversation settled on the food for a few minutes, as it should have.  Anita was an excellent cook and gracious hostess.  Michael and I took turns raving about the meal until we'd both repeated our overzealous compliments at least three times.  When that topic had no choice but to fade away we were left suffering from a silence so painful I wanted to wince.


     Anita gave her husband several pointed looks as though signaling him to strike up a conversation with me.  He chose to ignore her subtle order, so she turned to me, smiled, and asked me about the work Rick and I do.  I suppose she thought it was a safe subject, and of course it was.  From there she steered our talk in the direction of Megan, but I could tell she was being careful to avoid anything too personal that might set either me or her husband off.  She told me about some of the family vacations they'd taken over the years, and relayed little incidents involving Megan's school days and friends.  She tried to draw Michael into the conversation by asking him direct questions about the happenings of which she was speaking.  He always answered her, but wouldn't look at me, as though if he didn't he could pretend I wasn't really there.  Nor did Michael do what I got the impression Anita wanted him to, which was to pick up the ball and keep it rolling in regards to the conversation.


     While we ate ice cream and warm carrot cake Anita told me about her job at the Fillmore.  To be quite honest with you, I didn't even know she had continued working after she and Michael had married.  It turned out she did.  When Megan entered first grade Anita cut her hours to part-time at the Fillmore so she could take classes on hotel management at a community college.  Three years later she graduated.  Now she worked at the Fillmore in Oakland as its operations manager, which she told me meant she supervised the desk clerks, bellhops, and housekeeping staff.  I was impressed, as well as pleased for her, and I told her so.  It was hard to picture this stable career woman, wife, and mother who now sat at my elbow, as the same free-spirited girl I had dated twenty years earlier.


     Michael and I rose to help Anita clear the table.  She shooed us away with a wave of her hand.  "Michael, why don't you show A.J. around the neighborhood.  Maybe he'd like to see where Megan went to school and the park where she played soccer.  Besides, you need to get your walk in sometime before we leave for Megan's performance."


     I assumed by “his walk,” Anita was referring to part of an exercise program prescribed for Michael by his doctors to help bring his strength back.


     I could tell Michael was about as thrilled at the thought of me tagging along on his walk as Rick used to be when we were kids and Mom forced him to take me with him every time he went to the park.   For lack of knowing what else to do with me I suppose, Michael agreed to Anita's suggestion.  I doubt he wanted to leave me alone in the house with his wife.  After all, I had already gotten her pregnant once. 


     We ambled out onto the sidewalk and strolled a few blocks without exchanging any words.  Things got a little easier once we came to Franklin Delano Roosevelt Grade School.  I could see a distinct difference between the old two story brick part of the school that was obviously built when the man it was named for was president, and the newer one story addition that was connected to it and sprawled out along side of it.  I commented on the addition, which prompted Michael to tell me a few stories about his days spent in the school when what was now the old part was brand new.  Since we were roughly of the same generation that, in turn, prompted me to tell him some stories of my own school days.


     A few blocks down we came to Hollander High School: Home Of The Eagles, as the blue letters on the front of the building proclaimed.  This school appeared to be brand new.   Michael explained to me how it had been built when Megan was a sophomore.   He told me he was glad she'd gotten a chance to attend two years at the old high school, which he'd attended as well, before it had been torn down once the new building was ready for occupation.


     As he gazed at the new building he said softly, "Sometimes I hate to see things change, A.J." 


     It was the first time he'd called me by name.  And by things changing I was aware he didn't just mean outdated school buildings being replaced by modern ones.


     "I know what you're saying," I wholeheartedly agreed.  Without meaning to, we'd come to a small portion of understanding.


     Michael led the way to the older neighborhood I'd driven through before entering his.  As we drew closer to the water's edge I could smell salt and ripe seaweed.  It was a smell I had always loved and identified with home. 


     Michael pointed out a square white two story house with a wide front porch that was shaded by full, towering trees. 


     "That's where I grew up."


     "Do your parents still live here?"


     I knew his parents were living yet, because Megan had mentioned them to me a couple of times.


     "No," he shook his head.  "My father's had some respiratory problems in recent years so they moved to Arizona in 1986.  They hated to go, but the dry heat is better for him.  The damp ocean air just causes him more problems."


     I suppose the visit to his old neighborhood is what prompted us to start talking of our growing up years.  Much to my surprise I found out he’d had a younger brother and sister.  I had been under the assumption he was an only child.


     "My sister, Debbie, died of leukemia when she was two years old," he told me.  "I was seven when she passed away, my brother Bobby, four.   That was 1946.  There wasn't anything they could do for the disease back then except tell the parents to take their child home and let him or her die as comfortably as possible.  So that's what my parent's did."  He pointed to an upstairs window above the front door.  "She died in that room."


     We rounded the corner to the next block and were now on a sidewalk that bordered the beach.   While Michael spoke of his brother a lone gull circled and cried overhead as if in mourning. 


"Bob was killed in Nam in '69.  I never went.  By the time the war really heated up and they were drafting every available guy who wasn't college deferred I was twenty-seven.  I guess I was too old, or maybe they didn't want me for some other reason.  Bobby was fresh out of high school in 1960 when he enlisted in the army.  He wanted to make the military his career and was already a lieutenant when they sent him to Nam seven years later.  I didn't see him again until he came home in a body bag."


     Although he spoke of it very calmly and with little emotion, I could hear the pain in his voice.  It was a pain I could sympathize with.


     "I never went either," I told him.  "Unlike you, I was young enough to be drafted, but I was college deferred.  Plus my brother was already over there serving in the Marine Corps.   Since it was just the two of us, and because our mother is a widow, Uncle Sam was generous enough to grant me a permanent deferment."


     Michael smiled at my sarcasm.  We talked a long time about what it was like to have a sibling off fighting a war while you're the one safe at home in the states.  


     As the direction of our walk changed, so did our subject matter.  He asked me questions about Simon and Simon, and I asked him questions about his job.  Somehow we started talking about sports and discovered we both loved to engage in about any sport there was.  Megan mentioned during one of our phone conversations that Michael had been a hometown hero on the playing fields.  I didn't brag to the man about my own skills while in high school, but evidently Anita had told him I lettered in every sport I played.  We also discovered we shared a passion for baseball and playfully argued the merits of the San Francisco Giants versus the San Diego Padres.   Given the Padres usual dismal record, I was on the losing end of that one.


     The resistance with which we had engaged in this walk was slowly evaporating.  Michael began to open up about Megan as we headed back to his house.  He quietly explained to me his reasoning behind the decisions he'd made during her growing up years regarding keeping her true parentage from her.


     As our walk brought us closer to his home Michael slowed to a halt and turned to face me.   


"A.J., I know telling you I'm sorry isn't good enough.  I...I have so many mixed feelings about all this that I can't even begin to sort them out.  But if I've given you the impression that I'm mad at you, or that I dislike you...well, neither of those things are true.  Admittedly, I wanted to dislike you.  As a matter of fact, I wanted to loathe you.  When Megan showed me the bracelet you gave her I saw red.  After Megan returned to school I told Anita you were trying to buy Megan's love.  She told me you weren't that type of a person, but I pictured all kinds of lavish gifts being sent Megan's way and asked Anita what was next, a hot pink Corvette?"


     I couldn't help but chuckle.  "Not on my salary."


     Michael flashed a quick grin in appreciation of my humor and sarcastic honesty.   "I've always instilled the value of hard work in Megan.  Though I suppose Anita and I could have afforded to spoil her with expensive toys and clothes we didn't.  When she was ten and just had to have a fifty dollar skateboard that I refused to buy her, she took a paper route and earned the money for it.  When she was fourteen and insisted upon a pair of seventy dollar Nikes, she bused tables at one of the cafes to pay for them.  When she was seventeen and wanted a car I made her finance half its cost.  So when I saw that bracelet that I knew had to be worth at least five hundred dollars I thought, so this is how the jerk is going to play the game.  I pegged you as a hot-shot playboy with an exciting job who was going to show Megan  good times full of razzle and dazzle, and in contrast make me look as boring and stodgy as a ninety-year-old man.  But Anita was right all along. You're not like that.  You're not like that at all.  You're nothing like I pictured you to be, and if anyone should be angry it's you.  You have every right to deck me and tell me to go to hell.  You have every right to turn my daugh....Megan, against me."


     It's funny how that was exactly what I'd been wanting to do for over a month.  Suddenly, however, I realized that no matter how much the guy might deserve my fury, my resentment, and my bitterness, none of those things were going to change the situation.  In fact, they would only make this tougher on all of us, and most especially on Megan. 


     "Michael," I finally said, calling him by name for the first time.  "I'm not going to deny that I haven't been angry this last month, or that I wouldn't have liked nothing more than to beat you senseless for keeping my daughter from me for twenty years.  But if you and I can't somehow figure out how to...share Megan's love, then rather than hurting each other we're only going to end up hurting her.  And I know that's the last thing either one of us wants to do."


     "You're right," he acknowledged softly.  "It is."


     "So I guess you need to know that I'm not here to take Megan away from you, or to steal her love from you, or to buy her love either.  I'm only here to get to know her better, and to try to figure just where it is I fit into her life."


     "You're a very important part of her life, A.J.  I can assure you of that.  And now you need to know I have no intention of keeping her from you.  Megan's a grown woman and is capable of making her own decisions.  I know...I know the love she feels for me isn't diminished by the love she feels for you."  He gave me an embarrassed smile that I could easily read.  Neither Michael nor I were used to standing on a sidewalk with another man and talking about love.  "Or at least that's what Megan tells me, and I've got to believe what she says is the truth."


     I nodded my assurance.  "It is.  You're the man who raised her.  I can never be all the things you've been to her."


     He studied my face a long moment.  "I can see where Megan gets her understanding and compassion.  You know, in many ways I've wanted to meet you for years so that I could thank you for unintentionally giving me such a wonderful daughter."  I could hear the tears in his voice.  "That's the only reason I was so adamant about Megan not knowing the truth.  I was so afraid you'd take her away from me.  I know it wasn't fair to you, but I love her very much, A.J."


     He was right.  It wasn't fair to me.  But I was through feeling sorry for myself.  It wouldn't change the situation anyway.  Instead, it was time to look at the positive things that had come out of this mess.  As I watched two tears roll down his cheeks I realized how lucky I was that such a compassionate, caring, good man had raised my daughter.  Megan may have inherited some of her personality from me, but I was also well aware that a lot of the woman she was today was a direct result of this man's teachings.  And from what I'd seen so far he'd raised her with the same morals I would have.  He'd given her the same opportunities I would have.  And he'd given her the unconditional love I would have given her had I been there.


     I held out my hand to him.  He gave me a puzzled look, but grasped it in his. 


"Thanks, Michael, for raising a woman I'm proud to call daughter."


     He shook my hand and smiled.  "And thank you, A.J., for giving me a beautiful little girl who has been a joy to watch grow up every day and in every way."


     Our handshake ended and we turned for his home.   With nonchalance he stated,  "I've been giving it some thought, and I don't think I'm really feeling up to attending the dance tomorrow night."


     I didn't have to look at him to know he was lying to me.  Nor did I have to look at him to know he was expecting me to play along with his little charade. 


"You're not?"


     "No," he shook his head.  "I'm not.  You know how young women are.  They want to dance the night away, and quite frankly my dancing shoes are still recuperating.  Therefore, I'd like you to escort Megan by yourself tomorrow evening."


     I turned to face him.  "Michael--"


     His gray eyes shone with both compassion and apology.  "No, that's what I want.  I've been to a number of father/daughter dances in my time, but you have yet to attend one.  I can't give you back all the years that were stolen from you, A.J., but I can give you this.  Please, take it as the gift it's meant to be.  I know it's not much, but under the circumstances it's the best I can do."


     "Michael, I appreciate the offer, I really do, but I don't think that's what Megan wants.  She told me over the phone she wants both of us to escort her."


     "Don't worry.  I'll talk to her about it.  I think she'll agree with me that for this time, this is the way it should be."


     I shrugged.  "Then I'll leave the decision up to the two of you."


     As we stepped back into his driveway he commented, "Oh, by the way.  Only Anita and my mother call me Michael.  My friends call me Mike."


     I smiled at his words and the meaning behind them.  "I'll remember that from now on...Mike."


     "I hope you do, A.J.  I hope you do."


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     I drove back into the city at four o'clock that afternoon.   Traffic was terrible, leaving me just enough time to shower and change before meeting Mike and Anita at the small theatre where Megan was dancing. 


     I didn't take my eyes off her the entire time.  As far as I was concerned, she was the only performer on the stage.  I sat there staring at her in wonder.  I was in awe of the fact that I'd had a part in creating this dazzling young woman who so gracefully bent and swayed and leaped.       I think Mike and Anita got as much joy out of watching me, as they got out of watching Megan.  I suppose it was similar to observing a father holding his newborn baby and counting with amazement all her toes and fingers, and cooing over her tiny features. 


     We waited for Megan to change out of her costume and remove her theatrical makeup.  A few family members of some of the other performers were milling around by the stage door as well.   The door opened for the fourth time in a half an hour, and Megan finally appeared wearing a long black skirt and a fuchsia blouse.  She smiled as she came toward us. 


     Anita hugged her.  "You were wonderful as always, sweetheart."


     She accepted Mike's hug.  "Bravo, princess.  Bravo."


     She approached me next and walked into my arms.  "Hi, A.J.  I'm so glad you came."


     I kissed her on the cheek.  "I'm glad I came as well.  Thank you for inviting me.  You were wonderful."


     "It wasn't just me.  The whole troop did great."


     "Oh," I deadpanned.  "Were there other people on stage with you?  I didn't notice."


     She swatted at my arm as she stepped away from me.  "Oh, A.J."


      Anita laughed.  "You'd better not go around hitting your number one fan, Megan. As far as A.J. is concerned, you're ready to dance for the Joffery Ballet Company."


     Megan rolled her eyes.  "Oh, right."


     She turned, pointing to each of us as she introduced us to a some of her fellow performers.  "This is my mom, Anita.  My dad, Michael.  And my father, A.J. Simon."


     I realized then that Megan had thought these introductions out ahead of time, and I can't say as I blame her.  It was confusing to say the least, and depending on how it was handled could have easily caused hurt feelings.


     None of her friends batted an eye at who we all were to Megan.  But after I gave it some thought, I realized that in this day and age of multi step-parent families, and biological parents who suddenly appear in the lives of the grown children they'd given up for adoption as babies, Megan's introductions weren't so bizarre.   By the reaction of her friends, or rather their lack of reactions, I was willing to bet most of them came from nonconventional family situations as well.


     Anita had made reservations at a nearby restaurant for the four of us. When we finished eating she and Mike fought me for the check, but I stuck to my guns and paid for the meal.  It was the least I could do in return for the free luxurious accommodations they had arranged for me. 


     I'm not sure when Mike talked to Megan about me escorting her to the father/daughter dance alone, but when I picked her up at her dorm on Saturday morning she knew of his wishes.  Megan assured me she was fine with his decision when I told her if she wanted him to come as well, then she should call him and insist upon it.


     She smiled at me across the seat of the Camaro.  "No, that's okay.  He really wants us to do this, and actually I think we should.  Like Dad said, he and I have attended a number of father/daughter dances over the years, but you and I never have.  He wants us to have this night for ourselves, A.J."


     "Okay," I finally agreed.  "If you're certain."


     I took her out for breakfast that morning.  We had made plans to spend the day together until the time came to get ready for the dance.  When we'd finished our breakfast Megan and I walked the city.   Because one of my father's sisters lives in San Francisco I had visited the colorful town a few times as a child, and then once with Rick two years ago, although that hadn't been a vacation.  Megan pointed out places of interest and showed me sites most tourists don't know about.   We stopped for lunch in a lush green park on the bay that was filled with vending stands.  If there was any kind of food missing I can't imagine what it was.  Over my protests Megan insisted on paying for our meal. When we were finished I bought us ice cream cones.


     It was funny to be walking along with my twenty-year-old daughter as we licked at our ice cream cones.  This was one of those simple pleasures I thought I'd missed by not being a part of her growing up years, and here I was getting to enjoy it.


     As we strolled and tried to lick fast enough to keep ahead of our dripping cones we discussed her classes.  Because we'd had so much to talk about in what little time we'd spent together since April, I didn't even know what her major was.  I assumed it might be in the area of the performing arts because of her dance skills.  To say I was shocked when she told me what it actually was would be an understatement. 


     Megan sucked the last of the ice cream out of the hole she'd made in the bottom of her cone.  In two bites she finished off what little had been left of the cone, then wiped her hands on a napkin and tossed it in a garbage barrel we passed.  "I'm studying criminal psychology and police science."


     Megan had to slap me sharply between the shoulder blades as I choked on my last bite of cone. 


"Pardon me?  What did you say?"

     Her hair billowed out behind her from the breeze off the bay.  "I said I'm studying criminal psychology.  I want to be an FBI agent after I graduate.  I hope to work as a criminal profiler.  You know, one of the experts who goes to the crime scene before the body is removed, and through evidence found there gives various law enforcement agencies an idea of what type of man or woman they're looking for. This is frequently done in the case of serial killers."


     "Yes," I agreed incredulously.  "I'm aware of the procedure."  


     Somehow the thought of this beautiful, bright-eyed young woman willfully exposing herself to such a dark side of human nature was mind boggling to me.


     "What made you decide to go into this particular field?"

     "I've always enjoyed having to search for the missing pieces of a puzzle.  And I mean that both literally and figuratively.  As well, I like to know what makes people tick.  What motivates them to do the things they do.  And the FBI is a tough organization to get into.  They have rigid physical and academic requirements."  She gave an amused shrug.  "I guess I've always been a sucker for punishment.  I don't like it when things come too easy.  I get a lot of satisfaction out of hard work.  Mom says I'm like you in that regard."


     I smiled.  "I suppose she's right.  Rick says I'm the only person he knows who can work up a sweat by the simple act of brushing my teeth." We skirted around two kids on in-line skates.   "And I've always liked having to search for those annoying missing puzzle pieces as well.  That's probably what led me into private investigation work to begin with.  But to be quite honest with you, Megan, I'm not sure I'm too thrilled with your chosen line of work.  I mean, I'm proud of your ambition and all, and I know you'll be a great success at whatever you choose to do...but an FBI agent?"  I finished weakly.  "Do criminal profilers have to carry guns?"


     She laughed at my over-protectiveness.  "Don't worry, A.J.  I can take care of myself."


     I gave her the same look my mother gives me every time I toss her that line.  Suddenly I was all too aware of what the phrase, ‘what goes around comes around,’ means.  For years my mother as spent many a night lying awake worrying about Rick and me, and the dangers our chosen line of work sometimes brings us.  I had a feeling I'd soon be doing the same in regards to Megan. 


     "Would you possibly consider pursuing a career that won't cause me to gray overnight?"  I teased.  "You know, like maybe charting the migrating habits of Canadian Geese?"


     She lightly bumped her body into mine and rolled her eyes.  "I hardly think that will bring me quite the excitement I'm looking for."


     "I don't know what it is about the Simon side of the family and excitement," I bemoaned dramatically, "but the two seem to go hand in hand.  This is one time I wish that wasn't so."


     "Personally," she grinned with a twinkle in her eye, "I think a little gray in your hair will only add to your good looks.  It will give you a distinguished air."


     She giggled as she took off running.  I playfully chased her for two blocks before we both came to a halt and stood together laughing.


     I returned Megan to her dorm at five o'clock that afternoon.  The formal dinner/dance started at eight.  I got back to the Fillmore and had enough time to doze through the Channel 13 news before having to take a shower and get dressed.


     I was back at Megan's dorm at seven-thirty.  A lot has changed since my college days.  Men weren't allowed in the girls' dorms back then, and there was always a large busted, matronly Nazi-type woman referred to as the ‘housemother,’ sitting at a desk in the lobby to keep anyone of the male sex from going beyond a specified point.  Now young men and women cohabited in the same building, on the same floors, and quite often in the same room. 


     Fortunately Megan's roommate was female.  If it had been the other way around I probably would have thrown the kid out their third story window.  


     Megan opened the door when I knocked.  I had to take a step back in order to properly appreciate her beauty.  Her pale blue off-the-shoulder gown hugged her lithe form.  Its styling was simple, yet elegant.  When she turned to lead me into her room I saw it had a two foot train that trailed behind it.  On her wrist was the bracelet I had given her for her birthday.


     Megan's roommate had helped her curl her hair and secure it up on the back of her head.  Long strands fell in thin spiral waves to her shoulders.


     I kissed her cheek.  "You're beautiful, Megan.  I'm going to be the luckiest man at the dance."   Which is also what the card read that was attached to the bouquet of a dozen white roses I'd had delivered to her room while we were out together that afternoon.  The roses rested atop her desk in a crystal vase. 


     She thanked me for the flowers with a kiss. "You shouldn't have done that, A.J.  You spoil me terribly.'

     I smiled at her.  "That's a father's prerogative."   


     Megan looked over my black tuxedo with its embroidered vest of silver and blue tapestry.  Through no design of our own did her dress and the blue in my vest compliment one another.  "You look very dashing yourself, kind sir," she teased.  "I'm going to have to fight to keep the women away from you in order to have every dance to myself."


     Megan's roommate, Heather, gushed over our appearance.  She made us stand together so she could take our picture.  One roll of film later Heather allowed us to be on our way. 


     It was as we were leaving that I noticed a five by seven picture of myself on Megan's nightstand right next to a family picture of herself, Mike, and Anita.  I knew right away when the picture had been taken.  That Wednesday night back in April when we all had dinner at Mom's house Rick brought his camera and had grouped us together in every way he could think of.  I hadn't realized he'd snapped one of me by myself.  I was seated on the couch gazing off to my left with a small smile on my face.  By my smile I knew I must have been looking at Megan when he took the picture.  


     As we left the room I commented, "I see Rick sent you some of the pictures he took."    


     "Yes, he did.  I liked that one so much I called him and asked him to have it enlarged for me so I could display it."


     She couldn't begin to know how much that simple act meant to me.


     I smiled at her and held my arm out to her.  She linked her arm through mine and together we walked to the elevator.  Once out to my car I helped her inside, then drove us across campus to the hall where the dance was being held.


     Megan had arranged for us to be seated with four of her friends and their fathers.  If anyone wondered who I was or where Mike was at they didn't comment on it.  But I suppose it's possible a number of those people had never met Mike to begin with.  Megan introduced me again as her father, A.J. Simon.


      It was easy enough to mingle with the fathers of Megan's friends, though I was the youngest amongst them by far.  As a matter of fact, aside from the waiters, I was the youngest man in the room.   I guessed most of the fathers in attendance to range in age from their mid-forties to late fifties.  There were some who even looked to be well into their sixties.


     Everyone seated at our table talked and laughed and joked throughout dinner.  Megan and I were really teased when one of the female server's employed by the caterer mistook us for brother and sister.  I was touched when Megan laced her arm through mine and leaned into my shoulder.  "No," she told the woman firmly, and with what I thought was a hint of protective ownership as if Megan was letting the waitress know she didn't appreciate her flirting with me,  "This is my father."


     There was a ten minute lull between dessert and when the band struck up the music for the dance.  Megan excused herself a moment to walk across the room and visit with some friends she had yet to say hello to.   The pride must have been shining from my eyes as I watched her, because the man seated on my right said, "She's a beautiful young woman.  Very beautiful.  My God, if she was mine I think I'd lock her in her room until she turns forty."


     I laughed but agreed.  "Believe me, I'm tempted to."  It hadn't been lost on me that Megan had turned many a man's head as she gracefully traveled to the other side of the room. 


     My table emptied quickly as the first notes of the first song began to fill the hall.  I recognized the tune immediately.  I think, Daddy's Little Girl, has been played at every wedding reception I've ever attended.


     I honestly didn't expect Megan to return for this dance.  I assumed the song might have special significance to her and Mike, and she might not want to tell me that.  I sat alone, the only man in the entire room left without a partner, and watched as fathers and daughters glided across the floor. 


     Where she came from I don't know, but seconds later I felt a hand on my shoulder.


     Megan smiled down at me.  "Is it okay if I ask you to dance this time?"        


     I smiled back as I stood.  "It most certainly is.  But I've got to warn you up front I'm not very good."


     "Can you move in a circle and shuffle your feet?"


     I chuckled.  "Now that I can do."


     "Then in my book you can dance."


     I took her by the hand and led her out to the large parquet floor.  I found an empty spot in a distant corner as far away from the others as I could get.  I took her in my arms and swept her 'round and 'round in time to the music.  It was as if the bandleader knew this was our first time dancing to this very special song, and that we'd been late in arriving.  Instead of ending it where he should have, he nodded to his musicians to play it through one more time while he sang the words again.


     Over the years I've heard many a man say his life won't be complete unless he has a son.  As far as I'm concerned, any man who doesn't fully appreciate the value of a daughter has never had her lean into his chest as he circles a dance floor with her in his arms. 


     When the song came to an end for the second time we were the only couple left on the floor.  My lack of skill when it comes to dancing might have normally caused me some embarrassment, but to tell you the truth I didn't even notice.  I was dancing with my daughter, and I was the happiest man on the face of the earth. 


     As the final notes died away Megan wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close.  She kissed my cheek and her breath was warm against my ear.


     "I love you, Daddy."


     I'm not ashamed to admit I was crying when I finally managed to reply, "I love you too, Megan.  I love you, too."



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     Megan's July visit is now looming ever closer as my birthday rapidly approaches.   We talk on the phone at least once a week, and every so often Anita calls to bring me abreast of something she knows Megan hasn't told me about like an outstanding grade or a minor health problem.  Mike even called the other day wanting to make arrangements for he and I and Rick to go on a fishing trip together.  Rick and I agreed to his plans, and are to meet him in Hollander the third Saturday in August.  From there the three of us will head up to Oregon for a week.


     A collection of pictures given to me by Anita are now displayed throughout my house that capture Megan's childhood.  There's one on the mantel of a beautiful eight-month-old baby with big blue eyes, cherub cheeks, and a sunny smile.  Megan's high school graduation picture sits across from it.  In the upstairs hallway hangs one of two-year-old Megan modeling a pink dress with lace ruffles for Sears, and one of her at five in her tights and ballet slippers.  At eight she's on roller skates, at eleven she's posing on one knee in her soccer uniform, at fourteen she's sparring at a karate tournament, and at sixteen she's jumping in the air while leading a cheer.


     On the nightstand beside my bed is the most recent picture I've received.  Megan sent it to me for Father's Day.  It's an eight by ten of the two of us, and was one of the pictures taken by her roommate the night of the dance.  I'm standing just a little bit behind Megan with my chin resting lightly on her shoulder.  My arm is wrapped loosely around her rib cage and her hand has reached up to grasp it.  We're both wearing twin smiles, and for the first time I see the strong resemblance between us. 


     It's funny, but at first I used to look at all those pictures and only see how much I had missed.  But my perspective changed upon the arrival of this most recent one.  I suddenly find myself gazing at my daughter and rather than thinking of how much has passed me by, I find myself thinking of how much I have to look forward to.  As Mom said, twenty years is nothing but a drop in the bucket compared to the lifetime Megan and I have ahead of us.


     And now every time my daughter talks to me on the phone, she calls me Dad.


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